Originally published in Spurwing Communications, October 2020
by Steven R. Okun
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman wrote the only social responsibility of a business was to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stayed within the rules of the game.
Last year, the Business Roundtable, a group of nearly 200 CEOs of companies headquartered in the US, disagreed.
Now, a company should manage itself for the benefit of all of its stakeholders, not just the shareholders.
A corporation which operates profitably this way will have a competitive advantage across multiple stakeholder groups.
Millennials are so committed to sustainability they often take a company’s reputation as a sustainable business into consideration when choosing their job.
Increasingly, consumers prefer sustainable brands.
More and more, investors take into account sustainability when determining how to allocate their assets.
To do all of this, management must balance what on the surface may seem as trade-offs between profit maximizing and societal impact.
Instead of doing this hard work and making tough decisions which could pit one set of stakeholders against another in the absence of significant engagement, companies may opt to take the easier way out by undertaking basic steps such as banning plastic water bottles in their offices.
Way easier to do that than change how a business operates every day.
In the past, picking such low-hanging sustainable fruit might have allowed a company to brand itself environmentally friendly, but no more.
A company must change how it operates on a daily basis to reduce the harm it causes from an environmental, social and governance (ESG) perspective to actually be sustainable.
Only those that are transparent in how they are doing so, by measuring and disclosing their ESG and financial impact, will not be met with skepticism that they are either “green washing” or “impact washing”.
No longer a nice-to-do, society more and more demands that businesses be part of the solution to address societal challenges such as climate change.
In our part of the world, governments alone cannot stop rising sea levels, which will displace roughly 23 million Indonesians living in coastal cities by 2050 or the floods which affected well over 20,000 Malaysians this year alone.
Companies that truly operate sustainably, and then incorporate those efforts and impacts into their public affairs, communications and stakeholder engagement, will go further by being recognized in society as being part of the solution.
Surprisingly, many companies have not yet integrated their public affairs and communications functions with their operations teams to determine how to do this.
Rather, the bailiwick of government affairs functions remains sector-specific public policy issues.
For example, most government affairs functions at tech companies focus on issues such as data privacy, cross-border data flows and digital tax.
Yet, such companies have a huge impact on the climate, and their stakeholders recognize that.
For example, in 2019, Google reported that it used 10.5 terawatt hours of electricity, more than all homes in Singapore put together.
Similarly, in healthcare, public affairs and public relations professionals often are hired because of their expertise in that sector. But do they realize how much single-use plastic their operations contribute to polluting the oceans, and that regulations are coming which could affect them?
More and more, leading companies recognize their business operations are public affairs matters their teams need to address.
Google announcing new climate and renewable energy targets for itself will be even more impactful with certain stakeholders as their work on traditional tech issues and will positively impact their license to operate.
GSK setting a goal for all its waste to be repurposed for beneficial uses by 2030 will do similar for them.
How companies change their operations must be understood by their internal PA and PR teams and consultancies so as regulators have a full understanding of their actions. Conversely, the corporate affairs functions must help companies understand the need to change from within. They need a seat at the corporate table.
Demand grows for public affairs and public relations practitioners who can work internally to educate management on the way businesses can address societal challenges through day-to-day activities, and then communicate that to the outside.
Going forward, that’s how this function itself becomes sustainable.
Steven Okun is CEO of APAC Advisors, a consultancy focused on sustainability, and a Senior Advisor for geostrategic consultancy McLarty Associates which works lies at the nexus of business and policy in helping clients understand the complexities of international markets and navigate the strategic and operational challenges they face around the globe.