Companies that claim to champion sustainable development want the public to believe their claims. Thus they want to be trusted, and to be trusted they need to be transparent about all of their activities.
But how transparent can a company be about its influence peddling in general and its government lobbying in particular?
Many a company has been bitten by the charge that they are lobbying merely for their own interests, and against the interests of the public and the environment and even against the ideals expressed in corporate missions statements and the speeches of CEOs.
Of course, lobbying itself is not evil. Some company lobbyists today proudly describe how they take their annual sustainability reports or corporate responsibility reports into parliaments and senates to encourage lawmakers to put in place policies that support good corporate actions. SustainAbility's most recent report, Coming in from the Cold: Public affairs and corporate responsibility (produced with WWF and Blueprint Partners) finds that investors are increasingly interested in the reporting of a company's lobbying practices as a demonstration of social responsibility and good management - 65% of investors considered public affairs criteria in assessing companies and 83% said companies were not providing enough information on public affairs activities. The research also found new drivers for transparency and consistency in the area of lobbying related to reputational risks. For example, technology has opened up new channels for society to scrutinize companies' lobbying practices in real-time online.
According to SustainAbility, there are signals of change, with a sizable jump in companies that are responding to these pressures. Research conducted this year found that 14 out of the top 50 reporting companies were doing a good job at reporting on lobbying practices, up from zero in a survey conducted just two years before.
Businesses are increasingly pulling their weight with governments worldwide by actively promoting sustainable development issues in a manner that is in line with public expectations. For example, the members of the WBCSD, a collective, united business voice, are promoting potential policy approaches and mechanisms for the transition to a low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions economy in the report Policy Directions to 2050: A business contribution to the dialogues on cooperative action.
And in the US a collaborative group of businesses and leading environmental organizations, the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), has been advocating for federal government action on climate change. USCAP has issued a "landmark set of principles and recommendations to guide the government's formulation of a regulated economy-wide, market-driven approach to climate protection," says its website.
Such initiatives show business in a favorable light, playing a constructive role on important sustainability issues. It also builds trust between business and government, a necessary step to help bring together the short-term mindset of government with the longer term goals of business and sustainability.
These efforts could eventually help extend business influence on policy issues going beyond climate change to overarching sustainable development goals. Policy-makers are looking for business leadership on sustainable development issues and welcome suggestions from a shared and cohesive voice. Companies can leverage the organizational relationships they have with governments worldwide to move sustainability issues forward.
So as long as companies remain committed to transparency in their lobbying activities, letting investors and the general public know what they are lobbying for and why, they can maintain their license to operate and enhance their chances of obtaining the frameworks they want and need for their quest towards sustainable development.
As one participant at a WBCSD-sponsored roundtable on lobbying and sustainable development in Washington DC early last summer said: "There is an opportunity to increase support for sustainable development in US law to institutionalize change."
Lobbying and sustainable development -A question of transparency