As Public Opinion Battle Heats Up, Corporations Outpace Government in Fostering Social and Environmental Responsibility

buildingPublic opinion is increasingly influential in corporate decision-making, writes columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an August 7 Washington Post op-ed. As more people get their information from Internet chat rooms and other online sources, conventional print and media advertising becomes relatively less important. Gauging public opinion and adopting more-responsible practices before stringent regulations are developed can save businesses both time and money, Mallaby notes.

Mallaby cites several instances where corporations preemptively adopted social and environmental policies without the law requiring it. Nike, for example, pays its poorer laborers more than the prevailing wage in their countries because it believes protecting the company’s image is worth the extra cost. McDonald’s has added healthier options to its fast-food menu, many furniture companies insist on having their wood certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, and Wal-Mart has pledged to double its vehicle fleet efficiency and achieve other environmental goals, all without the mandate of regulators.

While Mallaby credits Internet “buzz” as the new element that has made corporations so eager to change their practices, Worldwatch Institute researcher Erik Assadourian offers a different explanation. In State of the World 2006, Assadourian writes that as the human impact on the planet becomes more visible, business leaders are coming to realize “there is little choice: either corporations become more sustainable and responsible or the quality of life on Earth—and corporations’ bottoms lines—will inevitably decline.” Assadourian notes that when CEOs themselves don’t recognize the importance of becoming more responsible, coordinated efforts by NGOs and other activists tend to be instrumental in convincing corporations to adopt new practices.

Whatever the reasons for greater corporate sensitivity, Mallaby and Assadourian agree that the trend is headed in one clear direction: business guiding government to more responsible laws, not the other way around. The coffee company Starbucks, Mallaby notes, has not only offered comprehensive health benefits to part-time workers, but is now lobbying the U.S. Congress to improve the national health system. And Assadourian cites Duke Energy Corporation’s efforts to push government adoption of a carbon tax. The writers agree that as more corporations recognize that policies that benefit society can also help the bottom line, greater changes are likely in the years ahead. As Mallaby says, “something big is going on.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.