As critical environmental and social systems reach breaking points, investors once again are using shareholder resolutions as a means to flag key risks for companies and markets around the world. However, this year has a different tone—an increased intensity. Time seems to be running out.
Proposals highlight three levels of systemic impact—the individual, society and the planet. For individuals, there are increasing links between disease and long-term exposure to chemicals and pesticides. For society, systemic racism, discrimination and the privileges of the very few are exacerbating old,
persistent rifts. For the planet, corporate dumping in the commons is pressing us past the point of no return—changing the climate, killing the ocean and collapsing ecosystems.
Interconnected systems are all at risk. Now, more than ever, corporate leaders must listen carefully to shareholders who offer collaboration and ideas to create a safe, just and sustainable future. Employees want to see their personal values reflected in corporate contracts and policies. Customers want companies to explain how they are solving social and environmental problems—and voting with their wallets when they don’t. Companies can’t afford to write off ideas for managing these risks.
As this 15th edition of Proxy Preview shows, shareholder proponents’ tenacity, passion and wide range of interests persists. As always, resolutions capture the zeitgeist. They address fair pay and working conditions, immigration and the penal system, board and workplace diversity, toxic media platforms, the opioid epidemic, high drug prices, ethical finance, corporate political influence, animal testing, toxic food, deforestation, plastic pollution, water and climate change. They also ask hard questions about how companies govern themselves to address these issues—and what they tell us about mitigating negative impacts and uncovering new value propositions.
The 2019 shareholder resolutions demand urgent attention from many stakeholders, from all shareholders and especially from the largest asset owners who control so much of the market. While big mutual funds have begun to weigh in on critical global market risks raised in resolutions, with bold public statements from some, most remain reluctant to exercise their proxy voting power. This abdication of responsibility needs to change; those that allow these trends to continue are complicit in the outcomes.
Many corporate leaders and large asset owners seem bound by stereotypes about shareholder advocates who file resolutions. The overwhelming majority of resolutions are filed by long-term investors who contend that profit and good corporate citizenship go hand in hand. Shareholder resolutions have an extraordinary 40-year track record of often being the first to identify risk and offer recommendations regarding critical environmental, social and governance issues that affect society and the bottom line. Resolutions are not intrinsically adversarial, although many companies view them that way, yet more and more companies are working cooperatively with proponents and seeing the benefits that can bring.
As shareOwners we strive to work together with management to find solutions that help create a livable world that will allow both businesses and future generations to thrive.
CEO, As You Sow