Proxy Season 2021

The annual webinar hosted by As You Sow on the upcoming proxy season had to build in some extra time this year. The events and upheavals of 2020 are reflected in the range and impact of this year’s shareholder proposals. As You Sow’s Andrew Behar led off with a strong statement: “If there is a silver lining from 2020, it is that business as usual no longer exists.” He said shareholder proponents are an empathic, empowered, sustainable movement,” with “a wave of new racial justice and equity resolutions…. This is the year that corporate boards can put their rubber stamps away and exercise real oversight.” The full report is available here.

Some highlights from the presentations:

 

Heidi Welsh of the Sustainable Investments Institute laid out the data, noting that the new restrictions on shareholder proposals enacted last year will make it harder to file. This year, there are about 435 shareholder proposals. She called the proposals about corporate political contributions and lobbying expenses “the connective tissue of shareholder concerns” because they underly all other categories. She called the connection between political contributions and climate change policy “the issue of our time.” And she noted that there was even more interest in political contributions following the support of false claims of election fraud by elected officials that helped incite the January 6 protests. This year withdrawals based on negotiated outcomes have exceeded those going to vote.

Last year had a record majority votes 21 proposals and average level of support rose. Reflecting the events of last year, there are twice as many diversity proposals this year. Half are about political activity, diversity, and climate change. Other issues: impact of antibiotic resistance (already withdrawn at Yum! Brands after the company agreed to a report, racial justice (Best Buy), abortion, pandemic working conditions, social media company proposals, SASB accounting, and “values congruency.” “The big new thing is corporate identity — proposed by the Shareholder Commons — calling for the stakeholder rhetoric of the BRT statement to be proven via Public Benefit incorporation.

Michael Passoff of Proxy Impact noted that there are only five  greenhouse gas resolution this year because of the Trump rules designed to eliminate them. He said only four banks are responsible for most of fossil fuel financing.   All four have negotiated withdrawals by making concessions. Europe is ahead of the US, with financial firms already redirecting their funds away from fossil fuels.

Laura Devenny of Boston Trust Walden said a large number of companies have no climate targets and  just over a third have ambitious targets. Support for these proposals is gaining momentum. 
Last year, the first ever climate lobbying proposal, at Chevron, received majority vote in favor. 
Shell and BP withdrew from industry groups and others 

Tejal Patel of CtW talked about racial equity resolutions, citing Citigroup’s data estimating a $16 trillion cost to the economy from racial inequality. The focus of the proposals is developing metrics to report and close the gap, with a racial equity audit initiative, including more than action plans. They want an outside review of results.  Facebook, Starbucks, and Airbnb have all done the audits and made them public. She, too came back to political contributions as a core issue. Shareholder action makes a difference. J&J stopped selling talc in the US, but was still selling abroad and giving money to Members of Congress who wanted to overturn the election. Shareholder pressure has made a difference. 

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