In 2019, 181 CEOs of member-companies of the Business Roundtable announced that the purpose of a corporation must now be defined as delivering value to all stakeholders, including employees, communities, and the environment. Pitched as a dramatic redefinition of the raison d’être of a corporation, the idea was that big business–the signatories were CEOs of Fortune 500 firms–can, should be, and is a force for good. Yet today, as Congressional Democrats debate a $3.5 trillion bill that will meaningfully improve the lives of families and create a pathway to avert a climate catastrophe, these same companies are, “through their membership fees in pro-business trade groups such as the Business Roundtable… funding efforts to kill” the bill.
In other words, big business said the rights things in a press release, but when the opportunity came to support legislation that will turn words into action, these same firms are adamantly opposed. And make no mistake, they are fighting tooth-and-nail against modest increases in taxes and regulation: the Business Roundtable “has dispatched C-suite executives to meet with lawmakers, and it has orchestrated an expansive opposition campaign that includes TV and radio commercials, in-person lobbying” and more.
If it were possible to tackle climate change and raise Americans’ standards of living without raising taxes on the rich and powerful, then milk and honey would flow from our faucets and rainbows would follow us everywhere we went. But in the real world, change costs money; in a just society, the most privileged pay their fair share. Yet as we all suspected and a recent ProPublica series demonstrated, many of our wealthiest individuals and companies pay no taxes at all.
The real message of groups like the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce is that corporate America is here to do and fight for what’s right–so long as it remains profitable to do so. Ironically, there is much money to be made from the clean-energy transition, and I don’t see how investments that lead to families having more disposable income–which they can spend in the economy–won’t increase profitability. But to far too many businesses, the threat of slightly higher taxes and more regulation is far more serious than that of an unlivable planet.
The hypocritical disconnect between what is said and what is done has real consequences. Blackrock, which manages over $6.5 trillion in assets, just “announced a $100 million grant…to help accelerate the development of the climate solutions necessary to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.” Great! However, a 2019 report identified them as the “world’s largest investor in deforestation.” It is encouraging to see them move in the right direction–they have taken real steps to reduce emissions–but we mustn’t forget that, for decades, firms like Blackrock have become fabulously wealthy off planetary destruction, even when they knew better. What happens when their bottom line comes into conflict with their climate goals? I think the answer is clear.
As the CEO of a nonprofit that depends a lot on big business for the grants and loans that fuel our mission-first work, my attitude is as follows. I will take every penny I can, and I will engage with and push them to do what’s right. But none of us can afford to be naive enough to take them at their word, for time and again, the most powerful entities on the planet have proven that they are not to be trusted. The battle over the reconciliation bill is only the latest and perhaps clearest example that, as activists, citizens, and nonprofit leaders, our role is to speak out and protest against the actions they take–and not to applaud press releases and theoretical pledges. The atmosphere doesn’t respond to anything but the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into it; we shouldn’t, either.