Does the ‘Shareholder Spring’ herald a new era for CSR?
Since the Arab Spring last year, it seems that appending ‘Spring’ to any popular movement has already become a cliche – the “-gate” of the modern day. But my ears pricked up at the mention of the ‘Shareholder Spring’ this year where a number of big businesses are being given a firm clip around the ear by the people that own them – their shareholders.
When Business Secretary Vince Cable announced last year that one of his efforts to contain excessive executive pay was to give more power to shareholders, I must admit I was sceptical. Yes a few individual shareholders may protest, but the big institutional shareholders who have to find enough money to pay our pensions tend not to rock the boat. But now there have been shareholder revolts at Aviva, Barclays, AstraZeneca, Trinity Mirror and several others – and chief executive heads have rolled. Cable is keen to legislate for more power to the shareholder elbow and is being urged on by his opposite number Chuka Umunna, suggesting momentum will continue.
The big focus of the Shareholder Spring is excessive executive pay – in particular rewards for poor or mediocre performance. The fast expanding ratio of executive to average pay is one of the scandals of recent times – and it clearly contributes to inequalities in society. But with wider corporate social responsibility (CSR) becoming a key source of competitive advantage, when will shareholders start looking at the whole range of green and ethical risks?
And will those investors start seeing their investments as opportunities to demonstrate their own CSR? Currently you can invest in green and ethical funds (which often outperform the mainstream), but in the same way as ‘green’ is being integrated into mainstream consumer products like P&G’s Ariel Excel Gel, will CSR be integrated into mainstream investment policies? The environmental pressure groups certainly think this is a key arm to twist – for example targeting the part nationalised RBS last year for its investments in tar sands. The leverage of shareholders is massive – probably bigger than any other stakeholder including customers – so this is a huge opportunity to drive positive change.
For me, it looks like I may have to update the business model in The Green Executive to include shareholders. I did consider including them at the time, but as none of my corporate clients, or indeed the executives I interviewed for the book listed them as a driver, I left them out. The way things are going, I might have to insert them in the second edition. Things move fast in this business!