On December 31st, 1600 Queen Elizabeth I signed a charter for the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, better known as the British East India Company. As one of the world’s first large joint stock companies, this new entity was able to quickly amass wealth by promising the rich of England that it could use their wealth to bring them further riches. Before long this new wealth had amassed wealth, power, territory and an army to rival the British Crown. Fortunately the Company and the Crown soon found that they had distinct but largely complimentary interests, and worked in tandem (though not without tension) to usher in a new kind of era.
In today’s world, this tension between the Company and the Crown is played out in the complicated but complimentary relationship between states and large corporate entities. Multinational corporations sit next to, and often above, the governments which define the traditional axes of global power. Yet we treat them differently than states. We are citizens of states. In a democracy, being a citizen means voting, attending jury duty, occasionally writing letters to your senator, and otherwise contributing to the functioning of a just democracy. Most of us do this, if sometimes grudgingly, because we would not accept a world in which government operated without this sort of democratic participation.
So what about that other base of power, the corporation? What does it mean to be citizens of a world under increasingly corporate control? As the governing forces around us evolve, our notion of citizenship must evolve with them. Even though corporations are not democracies (at least not in the traditional sense), there are roles that, as citizens, we can and should take in their governance. Doing so will allow them to operate happily to the benefit of humanity as a whole. Failing to do so can have the same dire consequences as failing to hold any concentration of power in check.
So how can we, as citizens, participate in the governance of these gargantuan institutions? Here are a few things to think about next time you’re done at the voting booth:
Vote With Your Calendar, Not Your Wallet– Here’s a dirty little secret: what you do with your time has a much greater impact on the world than what you buy. Time spent engaging with companies, employers, shareholders or even talking with friends about a brand will be vastly more impactful than anything you do with your wallet.
Though much-touted, “voting with your dollar” has very little impact on corporate decisionmaking. If you pass up Coke for their violation of labor rights there’s no way for your lack of a purchase to make it back to HQ. Ironically, carefully researching and purchasing the best brands has little impact on corporate behavior UNLESS you communicate to the corporation that you’re doing it. The one exception to this is new, struggling socially and environmentally sustainable products, for whom you dollar can really make a difference.
Be A Shareholder Lobbyist– Corporations may not be democracies in the traditional sense, but they are accountable to their shareholders. If you don’t have the kind of bank to swing shareholder elections all by yourself, there are lots of ways to help build coalitions of investors who want to make sure corporations make decisions that are good for the planet and society.
Talk About Brands– You could pass up McDonalds for decades and they would be none the wiser, but a tweet about #mcdonalds is sure to catch their attention. Talk about which brands are doing well and which are doing poorly, and make the discussion as public as possible. This kind of open, public dialog is the lifeblood of any just social system. If you care about an issue, see where companies stand on it by checking out their sustainability reports. Talk openly and often about which companies are doing well, and which are doing poorly. To make the discussion impactful, use the company’s brand. Whatever you have to say will stick in the heads of everyone listening, and you’ll get much more attention from the company.
Push for Regulations- Ultimately, corporations have to play as best they can within the rules of the game. Though some of them may not like it, we can and should change the rules to make the game as socially and environmentally beneficial as possible. Pushing government for smart, effective corporate regulation is the best way to make this happen.
Make Change In Your Workplace- Historically, big changes in corporations happen one of four ways. Either shareholders make them change, new regulation makes them change, someone attacks their brand and makes them change, or an internal group of employees makes them change. Contrary to popular belief, these big changes rarely originate from the top. A small group of employees somewhere in the organization gets together around a shared set of values, comes up with a plan, and gets the top brass to buy in. If you’re one of those top brass your job is easy. If not, start looking around your workplace for one of those small teams. They are an incredibly powerful way to create change, and can be a great career move. If no one around your office looks promising, look for industry coalitions devoted to sustainability. Most industries have them, from architecture to healthcare, and they’re a great way to get ideas and mentorship, make contacts, and figure out how to build support to change your firm. If your company still won’t change, then quit and find a company that will. The need to attract and retain a smart, energetic workforce is driving many companies to adopt better practices, and your skills would always be useful in a worker-owned co-op or some other alternative corporate model.