Lobbying tends to get a bad rap. The visual image it evokes is of politicians enjoying expensive wine and steak in the darkened booths of Michelin-star restaurants in DC or London. In 2012, which was a US presidential year, Google spent $18.22 million on lobbying and Microsoft doled out $8.09 million, according to Fortune, while the NRA spent $3.14 million. Everyone’s favourite radio show, This American Life, aired a great programme on the collapse of the proposed reform to American campaign financing and what that has meant for politics. But can lobbying ever achieve positive social change?
For many, corporate lobbyists are akin to Lord of the Rings’ Grima Wormtongue – quietly corrupting the ear of government with self-interest and accommodation with wrongdoing. The tobacco sector’s 50-year conspiracy to resist regulation, the chemical industry’s routine attempts to keep products of proven toxicity on the shelves and fossil fuel’s wholesale corruption of politics across the globe attest to why such a negative perception is warranted.
But there is another side to the story. […]
In the 19th century, William Lever’s creation of the Port Sunlight garden village to house his company’s workers attracted attention the world over. Lever was also an MP and 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 brought chocolate to the masses, while in his spare time he campaigned against the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. Joseph Rowntree made sure that not all of the trusts he established were organised as charities (with all their attendant restrictions on politicking) as he wanted them to be able to “search out the underlying causes” of social ills and if necessary seek to “change the laws of the land.”
Today, an emerging group of pioneers has 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.
[Read the full story in The Guardian.]
What Type of Lobbying is for ‘Good’?
In their article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Karl Peterson and Marc Pfitzer argued there are three different targets of lobbying for good (based on this article from the Harvard Business Review):
- generic social issues, which are critical to society but not immediately consequential to a company’s business;
- value chain social impacts, which are the footprints a company leaves behind through its normal operations; and
- social dimensions of competitive context, which are the external conditions (e.g., strong schools and good roads) that a company needs to succeed.
The authors suggest that companies tend to focus their CSR lobbying efforts on generic social issues but should instead be looking at reducing the impact of their value chain in terms of the impacts of their products and services. Thus, “[t]he company that pushes for improved standards can create competitive advantage for itself and safer, more environment-and consumer-friendly products and services.” I would add that we have also seen the importance of improving supply chains, particularly since the Rana garment factory fire of 2013, which require industry-wide approaches to identify root causes and develop best practices. More example, more than 150 companies have now signed onto the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which in an agreement between brands, retailers and trade unions in Bangladesh that makes independent safety inspections of 1,000 factories and public reporting on them mandatory. However, many other companies have signed onto a less stringent agreement and there is still a shortage of regulations on the overseas operations of garment companies to ensure that voluntary measures like the Accord are enforced.
Peterson and Pfitzer argue that lobbying to improve the social conditions that influence companies’ operating environments will have the highest strategic value for companies. Although social issues, like the quality of the local education system, exist out the direct business context, they have an indirect impact on a company’s success. Although a business might lobby for its own benefit, this can be compatible with the greater good. For example, Toyota which owns the ‘green’ Prius hybrid technology has called for higher global fuel economy standards that all manufacturers must meet, rather than percentage increases in the average fuel economy of each manufacturer’s vehicles, which is the preferred regulatory measure of manufacturers of less socially responsible cars that emit more pollutants.
The Role of Social Media
Given the increasing importance social media, it is of little surprise that ethical lobbyists have shifted to use Twitter, Facebook, online petitions,etc. to amplify their calls for change. Activism and lobbying efforts may be directed either at politicians, towards consumers/companies, or take a hybrid approach. For example, Fashion Revolution Day was created by Carry Somers, an ethical-trade entrepreneur, to build linkages across the fashion supply chain, from the cotton farmer to the factory seamstress to the consumer. The campaign has been supported by MPs including the UK shadow consumer minister, Stella Creasy, and Labour’s international development spokeswoman, Alison McGovern, as well as fashion insiders. But what can a social movement like Fashion Revolution Day hope to accomplish? The hashtag #InsideOut is a call for the public to wear their clothes inside out to commemorate those who died in the Bangladeshi factory fire, as well as to remind us to inquire into the origins of the clothing we purchase. The initiative has received press from major media outlets like Vogue and The Guardian. This type of initiative may raise awareness in a broader audience than would normally concern itself with supply chain management but no one is suggesting that a one-off event will singlehandedly transform sourcing in the garment industry.
Limits on Nonprofit Lobbying
One of the key barriers to socially responsible lobbying is the limits placed on the activities of non-profit organisations. In Canada, for instance, registered charities are required to act for ‘exclusively charitable purposes‘ and may lose their charitable status if they engage in political lobbying. While the intention is undoubtedly to prevent taxpayers’ contributions to ostensibly good causes being diverted to partisan political ends, the effect is to place charities at a disadvantage vis-à-vis corporate entities without similar restrictions.
An obvious case that comes to mind is climate change, where lobbyists have been active both for and against climate change measures. An analysis of 28 Standard & Poor 500 publicly traded companies showed that many of America’s largest firms have lobbied to block action on climate change or discredit climate science, despite public commitments to sustainable and green values. On the other side of the debate, corporate members of BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy) testified before a Senate and House task force on climate change about their commitments to reduce carbon pollution and lobbied Congress on behalf of a clean-energy financing bill. The limited ability of environmental NGOs and trusts to participate in the debate on climate negotiations in certain countries has restricted the range of policy options being discussed. Despite this limitation, transnational advocacy networks have mobilized energetically and with some documented success.
Fighting Isolation to Achieve Collective Impact
Whether lobbying is done by corporate or non-profit entities, it should ideally be a collaborative effort to achieve collective impact. Referring back to Peterson and Pfitzer’s three types of ‘good’ lobbying that can be undertaken by companies, lobbying that is restricted to improving companies’ competitive context will necessarily be limited in what it can hope to achieve. Many issues will not be picked up because they do not resonate with any company’s mission or values. The same may be true for nonprofits but having more players in the field will maximize issue coverage.
Smaller nonprofits tend to be disadvantaged as they lack the resources to target decision makers and leverage their membership base. Additional clout may be obtained through advocacy networks, either local or transnational. An alternative approach is through ‘collective impact initiatives’, which represent the “commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem” (John Kania & Mark Kramer, SSIR). Rather than simply working together through partnerships or decentralized networks, collective impact initiatives centre around a core team of dedicated thought leaders who use a centralized infrastructure and structured process to generate a shared agenda, aligned goals and mutually reinforcing activities amongst all members. While this is at the expense of some degree of individual autonomy, it has the potential to achieve targeted results.