Earth Day 2021: How shareholder advocacy can make a difference
Earth Day occurs on April 22, as it has since its founding in 1970. Some credit Earth Day’s establishment as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. As a child, I remember attending school assemblies commemorating Earth Day. Speakers stressed the era’s key environmental themes such as “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” They emphasized activities like picking up litter and planting trees, which we sometimes participated in during school.
My family also had our own environmental practices, such as recycling and planting thousands of trees on my grandparents’ property, which was barren from strip mining decades before. Our church had a Creation Care Sunday that coincided with Earth Day and highlighted larger-scale problems and emphasized our role as stewards of the natural world.
These experiences contributed to my increasing understanding of the fragility of the Earth and the enormity of our environmental challenges. My interest in finance and public policy blossomed. I began to see systemic change as the best way to mitigate damage and encourage a more sustainable trajectory.
I joined Praxis Mutual Funds® nearly 15 years ago, at a time when “make Earth Day every day” had become the mantra. I’ve been privileged to work on environmental issues through shareholder advocacy, using the rights of stock ownership to promote corporate change. The future of our planet is top of mind in my work, whether the subject is the climate crisis, environmental justice, or toxic chemicals. However, moving from one intractable problem to another can become exhausting.
On Earth Day 2021, I’m taking a step back to reflect on achievements and positive developments in corporate environmental policy since I began my career in shareholder advocacy. Here are a few examples of the progress I’ve witnessed:
It’s hard to believe a short time ago, it was a battle to convince many companies and investors that environmental, social, and governance factors were material and worthy of consideration. Now, nearly all large-cap companies produce significant sustainability or corporate responsibility reports and integrate ESG issues such as climate change and human rights risks into their core business operations.
Earth Day 2021: Shareholder Resolutions
When I began at Praxis, the goal of filing an ESG shareholder proposal was to achieve a meeting with the company. Or at least to get a mid-single-digit percentage of the vote to satisfy resubmission thresholds for the following year. Not only do proposals now generally receive a much larger share of the tally – and an occasional majority vote – they often spur companies to make substantial policy changes. And proposals can make a difference even if they don’t end up on the ballot. About half of the resolutions Praxis filed in the past five years were withdrawn because of negotiated agreements with the company.
Climate consciousness has spiked in the past decade. It was once a struggle to get corporate recognition of the existence of climate change. Companies are now setting ambitious targets for emissions reductions, even in lieu of public policy mandates. For example, most of the electric utilities Praxis has engaged have made net-zero carbon emissions commitments by 2050 or earlier, and all have set major emissions reduction targets. Shareholder dialogues now focus on the practical, incremental steps needed to achieve climate goals as quickly as possible. This is true progress.
Earth Day 2021: Productive Dialogues
The most important development in corporate engagement has been the willingness of companies to invest real time and effort in speaking with shareholders on environmental and social issues. When I started in this field, we felt lucky to gain an audience with the general counsel or head of investor relations. Now we frequently talk with staff with more relevant duties. As companies have become more accustomed to speaking with shareholders – and shareholder concerns have proven to be prescient – they see dialogue and relationship-building as valuable and beneficial. This bodes well for shareholders and stakeholders who seek sustainable corporate change.
Despite the fundamental progress that companies have made, there’s no question the quest for sustainability has so far fallen short. Witness publications such as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. If the Earth becomes uninhabitable nothing else matters. At the same time, it’s fair (and healthy) to take stock of what has been achieved in the recent past. For me, this progress offers a basis for hope on Earth Day 2021. Perhaps it can provide hope and encouragement for you too.
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Chris Meyer, Manager of Stewardship Investing Advocacy and Research. Chris joined Praxis in 2006. He leads the company’s work in corporate engagement and supports its investment screening and proxy voting functions. He has led shareholder dialogues on many pertinent issues such as climate change, toxic chemicals, child slave labor, and predatory credit card practices with multinational companies. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn. The above post is an edited and reformatted version of a post by Mr. Meyer, Earth Day: A time to reflect on progress – and the challenges that remain.