Four Ways to Drive Change through Business, Not Government

In the Age of Trump, strategists must look beyond policy to make progress.

By Doug Hattaway & Kyle Schnoebelen

100 days into his presidency, most of Donald Trump’s grandiose campaign promises remain unmet. China has not been labeled a currency manipulator at all, let alone “on day one.” Mexico has yet to contribute a single peso for the construction of “a big, beautiful wall,” and the Affordable Care Act is still the law of the land.

One area in which Trump has advanced his agenda, however, is rolling back regulations issued by the Obama administration to protect people and the environment. Less than two weeks into the new administration, Trump issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for each new one. Agencies across the federal government have since begun to abdicate their regulatory responsibilities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, withdrew the Department of Justice from agreements with local police departments designed to drive reform and improve law enforcement relations with the communities they serve. At the Environmental Protections Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt has begun rolling back the sweeping Waters of the United States rule, implemented in 2015 to protect the nation’s rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.

Even if Trump is unable to undo the entirety of Obama-era regulation, his first 100 days demonstrate that the administration will, at the very least, remain hostile to new rulemaking. Facing a Republican Congress that abhors regulations of any kind, savvy strategists must look beyond policy to drive change. One way is to engage with the corporate community to drive business practices in a positive direction.

Over the years, the Hattaway team has worked with a variety of causes to inform, inspire—and sometimes, pressure—businesses to act in the best interests of people and the planet. Here are four ways strategists can drive change through corporate America in the Trump Era:

1. Demonstrate the business case for responsible practices. The LGBT movement first caught the attention of the business community by educating corporations about the purchasing power of the LGBT community and showing that LGBT consumers would be loyal to companies that respected them. The economic damage suffered by North Carolina after businesses pulled out of the state to protest the now-infamous “bathroom bill” shows the potency of this strategy.

It’s getting easier to make a business case for responsible corporate behavior. Our firm’s market research for Consumer Reports found a massive market of conscientious consumers—people who say they want their purchases to reflect their values, make a difference in the world, and send a message on issues they care about. Advocates can make a strong business case for responsible practices by sharing market research demonstrating that consumers value brands that share their values.

2. Lift up responsible, successful companies. More and more business leaders understand the power of a purpose-driven brand in building loyal customer relationships and attracting top talent. Lifting up examples of responsible and successful businesses through awards, thought leadership, media partnerships and strategic storytelling can inspire others to follow suit. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, produces its Corporate Equality Index to lift up responsible companies—and apply competitive pressure to those that don’t make the cut. Major companies have changed their employment policies and practices to win a spot on the list.

3. Provide support to help business do the right thing. Businesses for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit working with businesses to “create a more just and sustainable world,” lists dozens of major brands among its members. Following BSR’s lead, civil society organizations working in different sectors could provide platforms for business leaders to learn responsible practices, coordinate industry initiatives, gain visibility within their industries, and build goodwill among their consumers. Business can also lead positive change: Johnson & Johnson, for example, shares how-to information to help other businesses learn the nuts-and-bolts of providing public health solutions in developing countries.

4. Create pressure by mobilizing consumers and shareholders—and empowering employees. Engaging on multiple fronts can pressure businesses to adopt better practices, and shareholder advocacy is a growing channel for action. According to a Harvard Business School study, “The largest number of shareholder resolutions filed by investors…now concern social and environmental issues.”

Mobilizing consumers and shareholders to apply external pressure is a smart way to support the efforts of employees working within companies to create change. While shareholder advocacy and employee activism happen behind the scenes, public campaigns can tap into growing consumer concern over corporate power.

C&A Foundation, for instance, is working to create a more fair and sustainable fashion industry. Its staff empowers employees in the apparel industry to improve working conditions, while supporting organizations that raise the visibility of poor working conditions with decisionmakers along the entire supply chain.

From workers’ rights to environmental protection, strategists faced with a hostile or unconcerned federal government don’t have to give up on creating change for the duration of Trump’s term. Looking beyond policy and engaging with business can open new doors to progress.

photo credit: Ted Eytan