Activists in the Corner Office: A Revolution in Social and Environmental Engagement

Something surprising is happening today in the boardroom: CEOs are stepping out as vocal advocates for social and environmental justice.
05/06/2016 03:48 pm ET Updated May 07, 2017

Something surprising is happening today in the boardroom: CEOs are stepping out as vocal advocates for social and environmental justice.

Corporate responsibility is nothing new, of course, but the level of CEO advocacy is increasing rapidly, and just in time. For many years, people looked to government to drive social and environmental change. When governments failed to advance progress at scale, we put our trust in NGOs. Today, we're seeing business leaders step up with unprecedented action and advocacy. CEOs are using their buying power, networks, media platforms and political sway to tackle the most pressing issues we face today, from climate change to inequality.

It's true that we have corporate responsibility stalwarts in CEOs such as Paul Polman (Unilever), Eileen Fisher (Eileen Fisher) and Howard Schultz (Starbucks). And visionary founders such as Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia) and Ben Cohen/Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry's) have been towing the line of activist leadership for years. The problem, however, has been a lack of fast-followers. Until now.

Today, we're seeing business leadership ignite in exciting ways. Let's look at a few examples.

Last month, some 100 companies came together in solidarity to express their support for the Paris Climate Agreement. The companies called for the swift implementation of the Clean Power Plan - the main contribution of the U.S. to the post-COP efforts - which is currently being held up by the Supreme Court. CEOs from Ikea, Mars, PG&E and The Kellogg Company, among others, called on U.S. political leaders for an investment in the low-carbon economy at home and abroad to give financial decision-makers clarity and to boost investors' confidence.

On the social side of things, we're seeing hundreds of companies such as Apple, Walmart, Bank of America and Dow Chemical express their dissatisfaction with anti-gay discrimination in states such as Indiana, Georgia and North Carolina. CEOs have banded together to wield the power of their economic impact (jobs, conferences, etc.) to drive meaningful social justice.

We're also seeing CEOs such as Marc Benioff (Salesforce) take aim at gender-pay inequality. When Mr. Benioff learned that many of his female employees were being paid less than their male peers, he spent $3 million on salary increases for about 1,000 employees. Now he's asking other CEOs to address pay inequality in their businesses. Benioff went so far as to surprise Tesla Motors Inc. founder Elon Musk at a Dinner for Equality, asking him on the spot for a pay-equality commitment. Musk responded, "I'll look into that."

These CEOs are getting involved because they believe it's the right thing to do. They also understand that their employees and consumers expect business to play a role in improving lives and protecting the environment.

Let's be clear, it's not always easy for a CEO to step in to an activist role. There are at least three things that are important for any leader to consider before she/he leans in to social or environmental advocacy.

• Always remember that what you say must reflect what you do. No one expects your business to be perfect, but be sure you are aligning external advocacy in areas where you also have established internal values, vision and impact.

• Be sure you're in it for the long haul. Sustainable social and environmental change requires passion but it also requires tenacity, collaboration and a willingness to invest in the difficult business of helping to build movements over time.

• Finally, jump in with an understanding that activism is not always easy. Sometimes it's going to get a little ugly because these issues provoke emotions and they poke at entrenched interests that may be loath to change.

The good news is that more and more people are making decisions about where to work and what to buy, at least in part, because the companies we keep close are seeking to make the world a more equitable and eco-friendly place.