Businesses have long had the challenge of looking to influence governmental oversight that creates the guardrails for markets, without crossing ethical lines or raising public criticism. The hyper-partisanship of our present landscape—and the speed and power of digital media—are creating new levels of reputation risk on a long list of policy topics. And as globalization transformed so many aspects of business, the challenges also became more complex. Current examples seem worthy of review and reflection.
The pressure being put on Georgia-based publicly traded companies in the wake of that state’s passage of restrictions on access to voting is bringing into vivid focus a dilemma long overdue for more public contemplation: given the power and influence of major corporations in the economy and in our political systems, how should or can they be held accountable for a lack of progress in dismantling systemic racism? As additional states in the U.S. contemplate tightening access, businesses need to anticipate tough questions from customers, employees and public officials about how business can or should engage. And the global response to the death of George Floyd a year ago is an important insight into the reality of racial and class disparities in so many markets around the world.
Corporations are not, of course, the creators of the discriminatory economic construct that has fueled economic growth for hundreds of years. But many of them have been beneficiaries of it—or are the present-day descendants of the businesses that benefitted in earlier periods of history. As so many thoughtful leaders—in public roles, in philanthropy, in academia and yes, in corporate roles—grapple with how best to move ahead given the reckoning underway, it seems inevitable that the authenticity of business’s efforts to be part of the solution will face extraordinary tests. Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and Home Depot are on the front lines of this emerging expectation.
Meanwhile, the New York Times today carries a front-page story on the tough choice facing clothing manufacturers and retailers: human rights activists have led the fight to purge the use of cotton coming from China as the result of forced labor, but China is fighting back. Their 1.4 billion consumers are being encouraged to threaten boycotts of H&M, Nike and other clothing retailers, creating what the Times called ‘the mother of all conundrums’ for manufacturers.
Corporate social responsibility is a well-developed concept within the largest and most sophisticated global entities, but as the world continues to get more interconnected and interdependent, even the most thoughtful of those value-constructs will come under pressure from both domestic political activities and nationalistic swings across global markets. Shareholders and institutional investors relying on the progress of ESG (environmental, social, governance) work, too, should be preparing for a new level of scrutiny and assessment.
How to prepare?
- Have a robust approach to issue identification – looking out at the horizon and around corners.
- Ensure an openness to being challenged, to see issues in new light. This will take both leadership and practice.
- Acknowledge that perspective is impossible to maintain from within an organization (especially at the top). Hire a firm like Tunheim to reach beyond traditional sources and access objective insights.
If you’d like to see Tunheim’s methodologies work for you, please contact us at https://tunheim.com/contact/.