Following the presentation of the Green Deal last December, the EU Commission initiated the reform of the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) with the objective to improve quality, consistency, comparability, as well as accessibility of critical information on sustainability disclosed by companies.
This legal framework provides companies and financial actors with much-needed rules and guidelines to report on the risks and impacts on people and the planet, and provide a basis for the EU Commission’s effort to scale up sustainable finance1. The severity of COVID-19 and its economic and social consequences have underlined the need to further and strengthen our efforts on creating a sustainable and resilient economic system.
The undersigned civil society organizations welcome this ambition and call on the European Commission to address the following two critical issues (…)
As the accounting continues, one clear rule of thumb is emerging as to who is getting their response to the crisis (at least mostly) right: those companies that focus first on the most vulnerable. The language of ‘vulnerability’ peppers the news and commentary as never before. Yet it is far more than just a label for the people who stand to lose the most as this crisis unfolds. It is the essential lens we must apply if a new stakeholder capitalism is to succeed: the difference between how our economies have worked in the past and how we need them to work going forward.
Before the pandemic hit, there was already a growing movement away from Milton Friedman’s idea that business should focus on maximizing shareholder returns. The gross and growing inequalities in our societies are the now inescapable result of externalizing risks and costs of business onto vulnerable ecosystems, workers and communities.
Yet this new narrative of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ always risked being far less radical than it appeared – potentially even the ‘virtuous side hustle’ some have feared from the get-go. Why? At least in part because the categories of stakeholder beneficiaries – employees, suppliers, customers and communities – were defined so generically that they necessitated little real change from the status quo.
Take ‘employees.’ The term includes those generously compensated in safe jobs as well as those whose pay, security and benefits are vulnerable to cost-cutting initiatives. It also excludes altogether people whose roles are externalized by evolving business models and strategies into categories of ‘contractor’ or the nominally ‘self-employed.’ The category of ‘suppliers’ blurs the line between large, strategic partners and small or more remote businesses whose cash flow is fragile and whose workers’ wages are the first to give under pressure.
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Similarly, ‘customers’ are by definition those who can afford to access a company’s products or services; yet the term does not call out those who are stretched to do so, and excludes, of course, those who simply can’t. Meanwhile, ‘communities’ can continue to be viewed as the beneficiaries of corporate philanthropy rather than groups whose health, livelihoods and opportunities may be directly affected by company actions and decisions.
With all this flexibility in interpretation, the new ‘stakeholder capitalism’ built a broad church. It certainly embraces companies committed to understanding how business practices may harm people across their value chain, and to reducing those impacts. However, it also readily accommodates companies hoping for little more than marginal adjustments to usual practice, or continuing to bank on business models that embed risks to people at their core. Little surprise, then, that some CEOs seemed taken aback to find that their new commitments raised expectations of real and substantive changes to address the inequalities of today.
Yet this pandemic, with all its awful consequences, is fast removing the ambiguity about what matters. At least in the Global North, it is showing the lens of vulnerability to be essential for businesses to determine how they should act, and a guide for how popular opinion will react. This focus on vulnerable people, once seen by many as idealistic, is becoming a primary expectation from investors, public figures, civil society and business commentators alike.
The same Milton Friedman who spawned the ‘shareholder primacy’ theory that stakeholder capitalism now proposes to replace, ironically also wrote, “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and politically available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
The idea that businesses must look beyond generic categories of ‘stakeholder’ to hone in on those individuals in workplaces, supply chains, transportation networks and communities who are most vulnerable is alive and available. It is embodied in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: a ready blueprint for governments and businesses to reorient capitalism to protect and respect those most at risk: a true ‘stakeholder capitalism.’
Companies that have led the way in putting the UN Guiding Principles into practice have shown a more natural reflex to focus on the most vulnerable in their response to the crisis, getting it right while others have fumbled. Yet it is the crisis itself that is now taking the lens of vulnerability to scale. It can no longer be viewed as impossible to make it the ‘new normal’ once we emerge from the pandemic. We just need to make it inevitable.
In February, the European Commission began seeking stakeholder feedback to inform the revision of the EU Non-financial reporting directive (NFRD) as part of its strategy to strengthen the foundations for sustainable investment.