Single Bottom Line Sustainability
Coming Soon: The Campaigning Corporation
Aligning corporate self-interest with real
by paul gilding
Could a large company campaign for social change? Could a global
corporation grow market share by adopting some of the strategies
of the NGO community? My answer is yes, and what’s more,
I think it’s coming soon to a market near you.
Most people believe companies will only act in their own financial
interest. Agreed. But many people then jump to assuming an inherent
contradiction between doing that and benefiting the community,
as though companies can only create value by “taking” it
from society. Based on the corporate behavior of the last few decades,
that’s understandable. But there’s nothing inherent
in the corporate “form” that requires this to be so.
In fact, the corporation was first created as an institution in
response to specific societal needs—ranging from banking
So why not a kind of “privatized campaigning organization,” one
that pursues value creation for its shareholders not while, but
by creating societal value—and then takes a fair share of
the financial benefit that results?
What if an oil company like BP or a car company like Toyota decided
that its long-term commercial interest would be best served by
a rapid transition away from our carbon-intensive economy? What
conditions would make this a good business strategy? For a start,
they would have to conclude that they had the technology, the reputation
and the culture such that speeding the transition would benefit
them more than their competitors—that in a discontinuous
shift, competitors would be too slow to respond.
And how would the public react? Probably by rubbing their eyes
to make sure they weren’t dreaming! Some NGOs would see them
as direct competition. They would see a threat to their position
as the guardians of all that is moral and righteous. Many anti-corporate
activists would see something “unclean” about a corporate
behemoth getting religion on saving the world. But others in the
NGO community would realize they were on the verge of victory and
see an offer they couldn’t refuse. They would recognize the
competitive advantage they could deliver with their reputation,
knowledge of the environmental marketplace and their deep experience
in campaigning. They would then negotiate to build new kinds of “joint
A credible corporate campaign would require logical alignment between
the campaign they were pursuing and a company’s products
and history. An oil company couldn’t credibly campaign on
biodiversity. But if it was campaigning on climate change and had
the answers to offer at a competitive price, where would the attack
come from? What sins could these “campaigning corporations” be
accused of? “Oh, they’re only doing it for the money!” Wow,
that’s nasty—accusing a company of pursuing profit!
There’s no denying that there would be obstacles in the way
of pursuing growth in this way, especially if the companies involved
were from the old school—used to working within their industry
associations to fight off the enemy (ironically, that’s usually
been everyone but their competitors!). They would need to overcome
the inevitable resistance from their internal culture. Breaking
ranks with your own and truly pursuing competitive advantage would
be a mighty challenge to the (at times almost Stalinist) central
planners of corporate America.
They would also need effective working relationships with the “industry
leaders” in campaigning—the NGOs that have been doing
it for decades. They would need to understand campaigning “best
practice,” something they’re not likely to get from
the McKinseys of the world, nor the PR spin doctors they’ve
been used to working with.
None of this would be easy. In application though, imagine the
resources available and the resulting benefits if corporate self-interest
aligned with real societal value. Greenpeace’s total global
revenue is around $150 million. BP and Ford’s are each around
1,000 times that! What if these giants focused their resources
on driving social change and thereby creating markets for themselves?
Granted, this may be wishful thinking. But I challenge anyone to
say why it couldn’t happen. I say it’s just waiting
for a visionary CEO to understand the commercial opportunity inherent
in driving real competition. When they do, these are the kind of
market forces that would turn me into a Friedmanite!
Paul Gilding (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and CEO
of Ecos Corporation, which provides strategic advice to corporations
on how to create value through sustainability.