Into the Fray! A Call for Corporate Activism

As I write, the air reeks of burned wood. It is the lingering stench of the worst forest fire season on record for Western North America. Massive plumes of smoke are rising hundreds of miles away, and the pall is cast over skies as far as the eye can see.

Recent coverage of the worst-ever flooding in Houston, from which Texans will take years to recover was followed by news of Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record. It wrought havoc and destruction in the Caribbean and Florida. The monsoon rains in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have brought the worst flooding that region has seen in years: more than 24 million people have been affected, and over 1,200 have perished.

Do these feel like the symptoms of a problem that can be solved with ‘compromise’, when nature is tending to further and further extremes? Businesses must decide how to respond to unfolding climate change crises, and the stakes keep rising.

Does compromise thwart progress on issues of global importance?

Does compromise support innovation, or stall it? Does it enhance sustainability or thwart it? And what is lost, economically, socially, and culturally if we confine ourselves to ‘meeting in the middle?’ Is it better for our leaders to seek compromise in the name of progress? Or is it time to take a stand?

Living in the manufactured reality of today’s media landscape, one could be forgiven for thinking the only way progress happens is through negotiation and compromise. Indeed, “compromise gets things done” is a thesis that seems hard to argue these days as factions become more polarized. But is ‘reasonable compromise’ really the best we can expect from our leaders? In the face of climate change, compromise too easily leaves us at status quo, and now that climate change is finally front page news the world over, the status quo simply will not do.

A friend shared a short article recently that seems to argue in favour of compromise—in support of the ‘pragmatists’—those committed to ‘getting something done.’ The author, Bill Barnett, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stanford, acknowledges that “by compromising [you can] call into question your legitimacy,” whereas “purists put a premium” on that legitimacy. So if there are challenges in either approach, how are we to decide on the right approach?

Is compromise a simplistic mask that hides a great, visionary leap forward?

Of course not. Yet political systems struggle to address complex challenges like climate change. It’s two steps forward and one step back: all but two countries signed on to the Paris Accord, and then the Trump Administration rescinded America’s important commitment.

Notwithstanding the commitments of leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron to “put climate change ‘at the heart’ of policy making,” political systems just can’t keep pace with the climate challenge. Policy change and legislative prioritization of climate solutions are absolutely necessary, but almost certainly insufficient in and of themselves.

Similarly, courageous reporters and strident protestors raise our collective awareness, and admirable, relentless non-profits lend vital support to those who need it. Yet the problems persist. Again, like political systems, these actors are essential, but their work is insufficient. They’re all too often constrained by limited funding or too little capacity, treating symptoms, rather than addressing the root causes of the problems at hand.

Missing from this mix are actors that can move more quickly, at scale, and across political boundaries. We need actors that can work alongside governments, NGOs, and civil society. So here’s a notion….

What if entrepreneurs and their companies became activists?

It’s fantastic what business can do, when it aligns principle with operations.

This week, Mars, the world’s largest chocolate maker, committed $1 billion to fight climate change. They’re already a sustainability-focused company; all their US and UK operations, for example, are powered by wind energy. It’s a fantastic example of what a large company can do, when it aligns principle with operations. Putting such significant ‘skin in the game’ is one important way businesses can get active on issues of regional, national, or global importance. (And it also happens to be good for business: a healthy climate means healthy ingredients for Snickers and Mars bars!)

In October, I will speak to the Conference Board of Canada on the topic of business activism. In my networks, I have quick, ready access to dozens of deeply committed and engaged entrepreneurs and enterprises that are leading by example. Collectively, they’re the leading edge of a rapidly growing movement in the business community that’s explicitly concerned with purpose beyond profit. But ‘activism’ (understood as trying to influence policy) isn’t unique to them, nor is it really new in the business sector.

Most of the companies we might consider ‘activist’ have a different name for it: lobbying. It’s common for major corporations to engage government relations professionals to advocate for what they want (or think they need) in the halls of power. The public is often suspicious of this, because secret conversations tied to political donations often run counter to the public interest. But there’s no arguing the ‘activism’ in their approach to pursuing what they want. Their challenge is twofold: Are they pursuing something that serves stakeholders, more broadly than shareholders? And can they build support from civil society by demonstrating their goals are aligned through openness and transparency?

How can your business be more ‘activist?’

Getting Started: Social purpose business isn’t new, so there are places to turn to learn best practices and to explore the leading edge. For 30 years, the Social Venture Network (of which Junxion is proud to be a member) has convened and connected leaders of the first generation of ‘conscious capitalism,’ people who remain committed to using their businesses to generate social value, as well as shareholder value. Attend a conference. Join the network. And look for ways to learn from peers who run similar businesses to yours.

Social purpose business isn’t new. Learn from the leading edge.

Explore certifying your business as a B Corp. The B Impact Assessment (BIA) is a well-researched, freely accessible rubric you can use to assess the health and sustainability of your business. Certify, and you’ll join a global community of businesses committed to “using the power of business as a force for good.” Even if you choose not to certify, the BIA enables you to compare your company’s health and performance to benchmarks in your industry or region, and at the same point of scale as your business.

Next Steps: Look for ways to collaborate with friends and neighbours—other businesses or non-profit groups who care about community issues that are of material interest to your business.

Consider our client, Solegear Bioplastics. For the past few years, they’ve been working alongside other industry leaders and experts to advise the Government of Canada on its bioproducts industry policy. Agriculture is a significant contributor to Canada’s gross domestic product and economic performance. Extending the crop-based aspects of agriculture with value-add, bio-based product research, development, and marketing is a significant new opportunity for Canada and for companies—including Solegear. Solving the climate crisis will require us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Bioplastics are one part (a ‘sole gear’) in that transition, so this is an important example of engaged corporate activism.

Share stories of success. Let others follow in your courageous footsteps.

Look for ways, too, to tell your story. Certainly, you must be cautious not to ignite public relations blowback by bragging or turning social issues into commercial promotion, but others will want to learn from your example. Mars is planning to talk about their climate commitments in M&Ms advertising campaigns. That might be the right move for them, but for you, it might be speaking at industry conferences about your experience engaging on social impact, or it might be co-presenting a case study with a partner NGO. Or it may simply be that you tell the story inside your organization, so your team is proud of your shared work. The right storytelling approach will depend on your context, and on the depth of your work. But find ways to tell your story. We all learn from the leaders.

Accelerating Impact: Taking steps to run your business in a more responsible way is important, and laudable. (Helping you to do so is a central part of our business.) But incremental improvements won’t be sufficient if we, as a society, are to realize the substantial changes we need to make to meet the climate crisis. To stay politically disengaged is to tacitly support the status quo. As we’ve seen the impacts of climate change increase over the past few years, it’s clear that the status quo is not serving people and planet. We need businesses to do more.

It’s time for businesses to step into the fray, moving beyond incrementalism.

It’s time for businesses to play their part in solving massive, global challenges like climate change. They simply must step into the realm of politics. This activism need not be about placard waving, or protest. Like Solegear’s work, it can be collaborative and supportive. But it must be ambitious and drive toward solutions. And isn’t that the heart of entrepreneurialism?

People are rightly cautious about taking their businesses into overtly political projects. Handled poorly, business and political change are a volatile mix that can be a PR or HR headache. You must also be cautious pushing employees, customers, or other stakeholders into activities that are (or that they perceive to be) partisan, political activities. Don’t infringe on their right to freedom of belief and conscience.

It’s increasingly clear, though, that despite the complexities, businesses must be politically engaged if we are to realize the necessary and substantial changes to our culture and economy to avoid climate disaster. The voices of progressive business people are often missing from policy debates. Especially valuable are concrete examples of the links between policy and business and economic performance.

Businesses have always been vital to our communities. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need business leaders to step into the fray, and advocate for healthy communities and a healthy planet.

 

Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. Join him for Business [Un]Usual: Profit from Purpose, a two day conference in Toronto, Canada, October 2 – 3, 2017.

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