Corporate Advocacy: An Essential Attribute of Leadership

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With the 2030 deadline for the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals just ten years out, critical action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advance progress on the sustainable development goals is of greatest importance. These systemic challenges require collaborative solutions and cannot be addressed by a select few. To achieve these necessary goals, advocating for systems change is critical. As we move into this new decade, corporate advocacy will become an integral part of leadership in the private sector.

What is corporate advocacy?

“Identifying and speaking up for the behavior, policies, laws etc. associated with advancing sustainable development” is how All In: The Future of Business Leadership defines advocacy within the context of sustainability. While all types of actors can participate in advocacy, corporations are uniquely placed to use advocacy as a tool to drive sustainable practices. The private sector has global scale and reach, interacting with thousands of suppliers and billions of consumers.

Corporations must take strong positions and advocate for policies that favor sustainability, such as carbon pricing and extended producer responsibility, in order to drive progress on sustainability issues.  

Corporate advocacy leverages the authority of the private sector to encourage others to act to advance social justice and sustainable development. By mobilizing different actors, such as policymakers, investors, other companies and consumers to reform public policy, market incentives or other business system processes, corporations can help encourage industry norms and regulations that reward more sustainable behaviors.

Due to their ability to drive the shift toward a more sustainable economy, participating in advocacy is considered a key aspect of corporate leadership. Corporations must take strong positions and advocate for policies that favor sustainability, such as carbon pricing and extended producer responsibility, in order to drive progress on sustainability issues.  

All In offers strategic and practical tools and channels for corporations to use corporate advocacy as a mechanism to drive business success and sustainable development. Opportunities include:

  • CEO speeches, op-eds, tweets and public statements
  • Commissioning and publicizing white papers and thought leadership research on topical issues
  • Private representations to governments
  • Participating in coalitions, and where appropriate withdrawing from government panels or councils where participation is inconsistent with organizational values
  • Becoming signatories to petitions and/or encouraging employees, customers, and others to sign petitions aligned with organizational positions
  • Promoting voter registration and civic action
  • Threatening to withdraw business from specific regions with discriminatory laws or practices
  • Agitating for legislative change
  • Funding NGO campaigns

Using the authority of business to drive change

Much of the progress on advocacy over the last decade has come through collaborative initiatives, such as We Are Still In, We Mean Business, USCAP, BICEPs Network, The Sustainability Consortium and RE100. While solitary leadership is necessary, bringing together a wide range of corporations around a topic makes a strong statement and speaks to the collaboration necessary for systemic change.

But the nature of corporate advocacy continues to evolve. Corporations and corporate leaders are increasingly using their positions of power to not just speak out on timely political and social issues but to become vocal advocates. The past few years have seen corporations speak out on a number of topics, but a reported example of corporate advocacy has been around the issues of gun control and immigration.

In the wake of multiple mass shootings throughout the United States, CEOs have responded in ways that may be seen as contradicting business success. 145 CEOs sent a letter to Congress demanding action on gun control, Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, said the company would stop selling assault-style guns and raised the age requirement for sales, and the chief executive and chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods announced the company would stop selling assault-style weapons and limit the sale of other firearms. These announcements directly impact these businesses and even offend some of their loyal customers, yet leadership is taking action because they feel it is the right decision for a majority of stakeholders.

On the issue of immigration, the President of Microsoft, Brad Smith has been vocal on legislation to protect recipients of DACA. When Delta Airlines flight attendants refused to fly planes carrying children destined for detainment centers, the company stood behind its employees rather than reprimanding them for their actions. These examples show that by speaking out and raising awareness around an issue, corporations can indeed drive change on social issues.

When the world’s largest money manager explicitly changes its actions in response to climate risk, it has the power to spur systemic change.

This type of advocacy is becoming increasingly common. One of the most pivotal actions highlighting the turn in the corporate mindset around advocacy was Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs. BlackRock stated that the fund will refocus its investments on more sustainable options and less on those contributing to climate change. He also called on corporations to confront climate change and prepare for a significant reallocation of capital.

In prior years, Larry Fink and BlackRock were criticized for telling companies in their annual letter to be purpose-driven and pursue action on climate risk without implementing the recommended changes in-house. This year’s letter shows how the future of BlackRock’s portfolio aligns with the position it is asking the private sector to take. It also speaks to the unique position that investors in particular have as corporate advocates and the power they have to drive change within the market. When the world’s largest money manager explicitly changes its actions in response to climate risk, it has the power to spur systemic change.

Where will advocacy go next?

As we enter this new decade, the future of corporate advocacy must be increasingly ambitious. It can be argued that Microsoft’s new climate plan to be carbon negative by 2030 represents the future of what we can expect to see corporations undertake in terms of corporate advocacy. Microsoft intends to scrub all the greenhouse gas emissions it has ever had, essentially erasing all record of the business’s footprint. This is a remarkable statement of leadership. Moving forward, it is up to corporations to expand beyond what they see as the traditional definition of advocacy leadership and adopt ambitious plans that reflect this new lens.

About the author

Caitlin Martin
Caitlin Martin

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Caitlin works on a diverse set of projects including advising businesses on their material issues and developing strategies for sustainability.

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