In solidarity with shareholder activist Sister Mary Ann O’Ryan of the Benedictine Sisters.
Last week, hundreds of protestors marched outside the McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting fighting for a $15/hr living wage. Despite barricaded streets, hovering helicopters overhead, and an intense security detail at the Oakbrook Lodge headquarters, I waltzed right in and a greeter led me to an assigned seat. While I frequently hold picket signs to voice environmental concerns, this time around I carried proxyholder credentials. As a board member of the corporate engagement organization As You Sow, I was attending to present a shareholder resolution. Our proposal for McDonald’s to phase out polystyrene foam packaging globally was officially on the agenda.
For two minutes, I addressed the CEO, board of directors and a room packed with shareholders. After thanking them for banning foam-based take out containers twenty-five years ago and hot cups in the U.S. three years ago, I urged them to finish the job in overseas markets. Plastic packaging is a prime component of ocean pollution. An estimated 8 million tons of plastics are swept into in oceans annually, and one study projected that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Foam cups break down into small bits that have led to death in birds, fish, whales and other marine animals. Styrofoam is also a possible human carcinogen. Plus very little foam actually gets recycled. Nine countries and more than 100 U.S. cities or counties have even banned or restricted foam packaging.
Shareholder activism has successfully nudged companies to become more socially and environmentally responsible. As You Sow CEO Andy Behar literally wrote the book on shareholder advocacy, The Shareholder Action Guide. He explained any individual or investment fund that owns at least $2,000 of stock with a publicly traded company for more than one year can propose a resolution to be voted on at the next annual shareholders’ meeting. Resolutions have proposed a range of actions including carbon risk disclosure, greenhouse gas emission tracking, political activity sunlight, board and workplace diversity, pay equity and human rights. Of the seven shareholder resolutions presented at the McDonalds 2017 meeting, Sister Mary Ann O’Ryan of the Benedictine Sisters proposed sourcing antibiotic-free pork and beef (As You Sow was a co-filer). The past four decades “nuns with funds” have been one of the most revered voices compelling corporate boards to include stewardship and social impacts in decision making. There is good reason for companies to pay attention to shareholder concerns. Averting complacency and embracing environmental, social and governance practices can enhance brand reputation, the bottom line and long term stock value. McDonald’s elimination of foam clamshell burger boxes in 1990, along with other packaging changes, saved an estimated $6 million per year and reduced restaurant waste by 30 percent in the following decade, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
While we made a strong case for our proposals in the proxy statement and at the meeting, McDonald’s leadership recommended to reject all seven. For ours, they countered only 2% of packaging used in restaurants worldwide (by weight) is comprised of polystyrene foam (for a sense of scale, they serve 1 billion cups of coffee around the globe each year – still a sea of styrofoam). Near the close of the meeting, we were informed of the vote tally. Every resolution failed. Our proposal captured 32.3% support, Sister Mary’s vote came in at 31%. Behar is quick to point out a below-majority vote is not failure. We sent a powerful message and large minority votes have led to big successes. A 2011 As You Sow resolution with a 29% vote pushed McDonalds to ditch Styrofoam for 770 million coffee cups in the U.S. Although resolutions are typically advisory and non-binding, they draw public attention to corporate practices and motivate companies to respond. It’s hard to ignore shareholder’s wishes. Also many filed resolutions never make it to meetings because the company concedes or agrees to negotiate.
The good news is shareholder activism is indeed influencing positive corporate behavior. Amid the Trump Administration’s push for deregulation, this important tool will play a critical role in keeping corporations accountable. If government won’t discourage unsustainable, unethical or risky practices, shareholders can. The bad news is shareholder advocacy is now in jeopardy. The Financial CHOICE Act, soon up for a vote, would gut shareholder rights. The Council of Institutional Investors, that represents investment firms and pensions with more than $23 trillion in assets, sent a letter opposing the bill to every House member, “we are deeply troubled by provisions of the Act that would threaten prudent safeguards for oversight of companies and markets, including sensible reforms that investors need to hold management and boards of public companies accountable, and that foster trust in the integrity of the markets.” Furthermore, Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economic Council, may amend or repeal the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) Rule 14a-8 that requires the shareholder process. The conservative Business Roundtable (BRT) claims it is an unduly burdensome regulation. Organizations representing institutional investors with more than $65 trillion of assets under management urged Cohn in a letter to leave the value-adding rule alone, “Our members are long-term shareholders who can attest to the fact that for over 45 years the shareholder proposal process has served as a cost effective way for corporate management and boards of directors to gain a better understanding of shareholder priorities and concerns and to benefit from those insights on critical and emerging risks and opportunities.”
Empowered shareholders have tremendous potential to hold companies responsible and change the way they do business. But what if you don’t own $2,000 worth of stock? If you are invested in mutual funds, inform fund managers how you want them to vote your shares. Choose to invest in SRI/ESG funds that are more aligned with your values and responsive to your concerns. Also, support and follow corporate engagement groups such as As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Learn more about the latest corporate issues up for a vote in Proxy Preview, the insider’s guide to social and environmental shareholder proposals. Also, call your congressman to vote NO on the so-called Financial CHOICE Act.
Beyond plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance and low wages, countless other social and environmental harms deserve a break today. Fortunately, shareholder activists are disrupting for good. This quiet, often overlooked work reaps supersize benefits. And people and the planet are lovin’ it.