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How shareholder resolutions influence corporate behavior

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Benton: The resolution process is the most public aspect of what we do. But far more often, we're having constructive conversations with companies. The first one that's coming to mind is TJX, a local Massachusetts-based retailer [which operates T.J. Maxx and other chains]. We filed resolutions with them two or three years ago on vendor standards and how they were [monitoring labor and other practices of] their supply chain. Over time, we've built a relationship with them and they've ramped up their understanding of our concerns to such an extent that we check in two or three times a year and they report back to us on what they're doing. And so this year, there was no resolution on the ballot.

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Most shareholder resolutions fail, right?

Benton: No resolution is binding. So we could get a 99 percent vote and the company's under no obligation to make the suggested change. [But] a 30 percent vote is extraordinarily high. It represents a very strong upswell of investor support for an issue.

Does minority support - say, 30 percent - have an impact?

Alpern: In the last couple of years, we've had discussions with a mid-range gas company called Anadarko Petroleum. When we first started talking with them, they weren't doing a lot of public disclosure about what their policies were on greenhouse-gas emissions - and what they were doing internally to reduce them or to move some of their investments into cleaner types of fuels. After one shareholder vote [in which] we got upwards of 30 percent support, the company really moved along incrementally toward tracking its own greenhouse gases more thoroughly and reporting them to the public and to investors.

Meredith, an SBC/AT&T official called you from the dentist's chair?

Benton: It was the day before they were to put the proxy to print. They needed us to withdraw [a resolution on sustainability reporting] very quickly. We did withdraw. They have agreed to an interim report in the summer and, going forward, looking at something a little more hefty.

Why are companies more proactive about such issues?

Benton: There are a number of reasons. We're getting better at expressing our concerns with a strong business case. What's also happening is that businesses are understanding those arguments in a way that they didn't used to. And they're beginning to see the results of not taking action - of what happens when you can't get your store sited in a community because they're looking at your labor practices. A third large aspect of why we are able to work more constructively with companies is because there are more investors coming to the table. You're seeing state pension plans, you're seeing labor, you're seeing SRI [socially responsible investors], and you're seeing religious investors all working together.

Do you foresee a time when shareholder resolutions won't be needed?

Alpern: Not in my lifetime. I think you need this give and take between investors [and companies].

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