Forecasting the future of corporate responsibility

Written by
Jon Kauffman

Purpose, Inc., episode 1.16: Erik Wohlgemuth, Future500

In this episode of Purpose, Inc., podcast host Michael Young talked to Erik Wohlgemuth, Chief Operating Officer of Future500, about the future of corporate social responsibility—and the forces pushing it to evolve over the next few years.

Future500 is a 25-year-old nonprofit consultancy that builds bridges between corporations, advocates, and investors to advance business as a force for good. Erik shared the origins of the nonprofit, which grew out of an effort to bring activists from Rainforest Action Network to the table with Mitsubishi, leading the manufacturer to abandon wood from old-growth forests and support sustainable-forestry products instead. “We try to harness that tension between the advocacy community and companies to see where there is common ground,” Erik said.

Every year, Future500 puts out a Force for Good Forecast report, which Erik said examines trends in advocacy, philanthropy, investing, and politics and then polls thought leaders for their insights. He described a few of the trends from the 2020 report (note that the two were speaking just as the pandemic shutdowns and the racial-justice protests following George Floyd’s death had begun):

Employee activism: “Tech workers (have become) the vanguard of employee agitation on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues,” largely through social media. (For more on employee activism, listen to Michael’s conversation with Alison Taylor.) COVID-19 has only strengthened the pitch of this movement, which is linking up with traditional labor movements.

Youth rising. “(Gen Z) activists have had immense success in elevating climate and social issues in public discourse,” Erik said. “Today’s youth movement is louder, it’s more urgent, and more capable of waging an information campaign on social media than any of its predecessors.” To date, he added, youth have focused on political mobilization, and less on engaging business. That may change.

Companies calling customers to action. As companies become more public about their values, Erik said, they can’t just offer rah-rah speak. “They need to be offering something distinctly more tangible to their consumers who are often feeling helpless or disempowered,” he said. If businesses want to achieve these sweeping goals, they realize they can’t do it by themselves.

ESG investing taking over Wall Street. “We really do look at big passive mainstream investors now as almost the new regulators,” he said, calling out the rising significance of activist institutional investors, coalitions like Climate Action 11, and activist groups.

‘Corporations are uniquely positioned’

Michael and Erik also talked about the potential long-term impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, the the intersection of racial justice and climate action, and political transparency.

“I do really think corporations are uniquely positioned to lead particularly in United States right now, where we have a vacuum in regulatory and governmental leadership. Companies have the resources: human, financial, intellectual,” Erik concluded. “Civil society must play a critical role in helping companies on this journey, but also holding them accountable for aligning tone and deed, particularly in areas where the rule of law and governmental oversight is really weak.”

Listen to the full conversation with Erik Wohlgemuth here:

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