[B]ig business in the U.S. is talking up stakeholder capitalism as it fends off growing criticism of its place in society. Most prominently, in August, the Business Roundtable released a statement signed by 181 CEOs in which they pledged “a fundamental commitment” to “deliver value to all” stakeholders.
For some people, this renewed interest in all “stakeholders” conjures visions of widespread pay cuts for CEOs or companies voluntarily paying more tax or saving the planet with costly sustainability commitments. Don’t count on it. Instead, expect the more usual solution: Companies will talk up their commitment to the latest corporate fashion while doing whatever they would have done anyway. Shareholder return will still be the No. 1 concern. And No. 2 and No. 3.
This isn’t to say that nothing is changing. A shifting business environment and tighter job market is pushing companies to take more account of issues that customers and employees care about, for fear of a social-media-driven backlash. But this is entirely compatible with a focus on shareholder returns, since shareholders suffer when customers flee and workers are unhappy. If you want to make money, you have to pay attention.