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One of the most unsavoury characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is Grima Wormtongue. He whispers from the shadows into the ear of the decrepit ruler of Rohan, urging self-interest and accommodation with evil. Such is the common perception of how business lobbyists conduct themselves within the labyrinth of government.
But there is another side to the story.
Examples of business engaging with public policy and making a substantive, positive difference to people and the planet. In the 19th Century it was Cadbury, Lever, Owen and Rowntree. In the 21st Century it’s Aviva, Co-operative Energy, Gates, IKEA, Khosla, Maersk Line, Moore, Dunning, Reid, Skoll, Unilever and a host of others.
Past champions of corporate responsibility are often viewed through the crude lens of community investment and how much wealth they donated. Yet the truly great business leaders throughout history have always grasped that legislative intervention can be a greater force for good.
In the 19th Century, William Lever created the incredible Port Sunlight garden village to house his workers, but he was also a Member of Parliament who in his maiden speech called for the state to have a role in the provision of pensions, and later went on to introduce a private members’ bill on the issue. John Cadbury spent his spare time campaigning against the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. Joseph Rowntree made sure that not all of his trusts were charitable as he wanted them to be able to seek to ‘change the laws of the land.’
Today, an emerging group of pioneers have similarly realised that the business case for corporate responsibility will never be strong enough to support an isolated business in its competition against the unscrupulous. Public policy intervention is required to change the rules and shift the bar for the allowable lowest common denominator. As Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future said recently: “We hear far too much these days about what companies can do to influence consumers through their brands, and nothing like enough about what companies can do to influence governments through their lobbying and public advocacy.”
The likes of Unilever, IKEA and AVIVA are rightly well known for their slick advocacy – which works so well in part because it embraces the need to progress change in unison with campaigning NGOs. The Sustainable Shipping Initiative, in which Forum for the Future and Maersk Line have played a crucial role, explicitly recognises that sustainable governance of the oceans requires the development of better global standards and supports ‘progressive legislation aimed at significantly improving social, environmental and economic sustainability across the shipping industry’.
Perhaps more significantly, we are now seeing smaller players entering the arena, such as Co-operative Energy – who last month helped force a Government U-turn on community energy tax relief. We’re also seeing combinations of small businesses take on the big issues of tax avoidance, living wage and sustainable procurement, via highly effective associations such as the US Main Street Alliance and the UK Social Economy Alliance.
The glass is nowhere near half full: the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope still wield far too much negative influence. But something is definitely stirring. Across the globe, the logic of lobbying for good is now such that it is overriding the cultural aversion that rails against it. This not only a positive development, but an absolute requirement for the world to have a cat in hell’s chance of reinvigorating serious progress on issues such as climate change and trade justice.
Paul Monaghan, is Director of Up the Ethics and co-Author of the new book ‘Lobbying for Good’.
Green Futures readers can save 15% when purchasing Lobbying for Good (Dō Sustainability, 2014) from the publisher. Use code GFD15 here.
Photo credit: Karel Tatransky/Hemera/Thinkstock, fazon1/iStock/Thinkstock