Margo Mosher, Director at SustainAbility, interviewed Jane Nelson, Director of the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of Advocating Together for the SDGs, about the role of corporate advocacy in advancing a sustainable world.
Margo Mosher: Could you start by telling me about your current focus of work at the Harvard Kennedy School?
Jane Nelson: Absolutely. There are three key strands of work that I’m excited about. The first is systems change, and I’m doing an increasing amount of work with colleagues around the role of multi-stakeholder coalitions in driving such change. I’ve done work on public-private partnerships in the past, but now I’m particularly interested in understanding large-scale coalitions made up of combinations of companies, NGOs and government that are mobilizing substantial amounts of resources and advocating for policy reforms — anything to push forward more sustainable markets, incentives and standards — and how these companies are together working towards broader systemic change than any one of them could achieve on their own. The second, closely linked part is what we’re calling systems leadership — what are the individual and institutional characteristics of being a systems leader and what does it take to work together to change systems. Thirdly, I’m doing more work on corporate governance and the role of boards of directors and investors in influencing the decisions companies are making around social and environmental impact.
When we talk about corporate advocacy, that suggests an institution, but I feel there are three levels to it. There’s individual advocacy, institutional advocacy and interactive or collective advocacy.
MM: You co-authored a report with Business Fights Poverty entitled Advocating Together for the SDGs. Can you share a bit about corporate advocacy specifically and what that means to you?
JN: When we talk about corporate advocacy, that suggests an institution, but I feel there are three levels to it. There’s individual advocacy, institutional advocacy and interactive or collective advocacy.
The individual is the CEO or other C-suite executives actually standing up on particular social or environmental issues. There is a school of thought that says CEOs should not be advocating for anything not directly related to their business; I think they should because they are influential and powerful.
Institutions clearly lobby, so there is a question of how you lobby responsibly, but there’s a need for the company as an institution to stand up for different social justice, human rights and environmental issues — from immigration, LGBTQ rights and the future of work to putting a price on carbon. Such advocacy is not only aimed at the public sector but can also be aimed at influencing public opinion.
There’s also untapped potential for collective advocacy, where groups of companies are coming together, often with civil society organizations. We’re seeing more of that happening because we’re not moving the needle unless we join together. Advocacy doesn’t happen in a political vacuum, so companies and CEOs need to advocate within different governance regimes, such as when there is a lack of political will, like the US on climate action right now. In this case, companies are joining with civic leaders, state governors and mayors because of a lack of political will at the federal level, and raising public awareness on the urgent need to tackle climate change.
I would personally like to see more CEOs and companies standing up and saying the environment matters, democracy matters, we need to improve our schools, we need to reform the criminal justice system, and so on.
MM: When you look at how corporations are currently engaging in advocacy, both at the institutional and individual level is enough being done?
JN: I know I’m biased, but I don’t think they’re doing enough. Others will push back and say why does a CEO, just because they run a company and earn a lot of money, have credibility? Why should government listen to them rather than an NGO leader, for example? And, in a place like the US, where we’re trying to get corporate money out of politics, a lot of my peers would say CEOs shouldn’t be speaking out on big social and environmental issues. I think they should be speaking out, but that if they’re going to, they need to be consistent so that their views align with their company’s sustainability strategies, diversity and inclusion strategies, etc.
I would personally like to see more CEOs and companies standing up and saying the environment matters, democracy matters, we need to improve our schools, we need to reform the criminal justice system, and so on. A lot of CEOs are doing this, but not as many as we need and not as strongly as they could. There is of course personal and corporate risk associated with individual CEOs or companies speaking out on such issues, and I think this is where coalitions make a lot of sense. We need more and not less, and more collective advocacy in particular.
An individual CEO’s voice is necessary but not sufficient, an organization’s voice is necessary but not sufficient, organizations being part of a coalition is necessary and almost sufficient, and when you get to coalitions of coalitions you can start to achieve real scale and systemic impact.
MM: You mentioned how climate change is the issue right now — can you speak to what you’re seeing in this field, and what we need more, or less, of on this particular issue?
JN: I think the We Mean Business coalition is a great example. It’s a coalition of coalitions dedicated to advocating for effective climate policy and mobilizing business commitments to address climate change. The founding coalitions came together saying let’s have a common voice in the lead-up to Paris, and they have continued to work together afterwards. The We Are Still In campaign is another example; it mobilized rapidly when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement and is made up of state governors, mayors, civic and business leaders, many of whom were already coordinating on the climate agenda. The members of We Mean Business, who already had strong relationships with many of the CEOs, were able to mobilize very quickly and support the We Are Still In campaign and also support America’s Pledge. You can look at them as an ecosystem of actors because they’ve all supported and leveraged off each other, which I think is key. You’ve got all of these different nodes or hubs of activity, which is great, but what We Mean Business has demonstrated is you also need them to come together. An individual CEO’s voice is necessary but not sufficient, an organization’s voice is necessary but not sufficient, organizations being part of a coalition is necessary and almost sufficient, and when you get to coalitions of coalitions you can start to achieve real scale and systemic impact. While this might sound convoluted, having a really strong common voice with specific policy asks and corporate commitments is a very interesting model. I think there were some missed opportunities in Madrid and I hope with COP 26 there will be a really strong and united business voice.
MM: Absolutely, we’ve made progress towards creating a unified voice from business, but it could be stronger. We’ve touched on this a bit already, but how do you see advocacy fitting into achieving the 2030 SDG Agenda?
JN: There are a couple of routes we’re already seeing companies taking, individually and collectively. What is business doing to advocate for the SDGs and keep them not only on the public awareness agenda but also the public policy agenda? There are a growing number of national coalitions, which is important around climate in particular, but also coalitions around specific goals and issues, such as water, women’s empowerment, biodiversity, education etc. I think the SDGs have captured public awareness and imagination more than one would have initially expected but more can be done, particularly through traditional marketing and social media platforms. I think it’s easier for individual companies to support specific SDGs. Companies should have a strategy for addressing the SDGs generally and understanding how they reinforce each other, but sometimes focusing on one particular area can be more effective. I think companies need to undertake something like a materiality and salience exercise focused just on the SDGs, asking themselves which goals are most material and relevant to us as a company and also most salient and relevant to the people we have an impact on. They should know what they’re doing to contribute to all of them but need to figure out those few where they can have the biggest impact, from a business perspective, a social investment or philanthropy perspective, and an advocacy perspective.
MM: As we look not only at 2030 but even farther out, what else are you hoping to see from business on social and environmental issues?
JN: Companies need to put their money where their mouth is. We need to see integrity, consistency and alignment with where they’re making their capital allocations and business decisions. Every company needs to identify the social and environmental issues that are most material and salient, both as risks and opportunities, and be able to demonstrate this is what our board is doing, this is what our business units are doing, this is how our incentives are aligning and this is how we’re measuring, reporting on and accounting for our performance. We could argue that a lot of companies are doing that, but of the tens of thousands of publicly listed companies, a lot are not yet taking these steps. Governments requiring disclosure is going to be important because we have a lot of laggards. I think it really is just that we need more targeted strategy on addressing the biggest issues of our time: climate and inequality.
Together with addressing material environmental and social risks through the company’s core business activities, advocacy is a key part of corporate responsibility.
MM: Equality and inclusion are so massive, and companies are waking up to that more and more now. There’s an unequal level of urgency on issues, but they’re all interconnected. Do you have any fears or points of optimism around the future of corporate advocacy?
JN: Corporates have an incredible platform and powerful marketing, political and lobbying voices, as well as influence over suppliers and business partners, so the positive side is that every company should be thinking about, as part of their overall sustainability agenda, what the advocacy piece of that is and what their key focus areas and tools are. Together with addressing material environmental and social risks through the company’s core business activities, advocacy is a key part of corporate responsibility. My fears are twofold: the first is that there will be too many companies with a progressive advocacy agenda but unaligned business practices, meaning a disconnect between advocacy and practice. Linked to that is the challenge of gaining and maintaining public trust. There are already such high levels of mistrust of public companies, so that even when companies are aligned and advocating for things that really matter, there is the danger of pushback. However, if business leaders and their companies demonstrate that they are “walking the talk,” and engage in a transparent and accountable way with their stakeholders, I believe there is enormous potential for increasing the effectiveness and scale of corporate advocacy for more inclusive and sustainable development.