The Business Roundtable, a coalition of America's leading corporate executives, created a firestorm with its August 19 announcement calling for corporations to create value for all stakeholders rather than simply maximizing value for their shareholders. A debate ensued over whether Milton Friedman was right or wrong in 1970 when he famously declared that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. Some commentators accused the executives of abandoning shareholders; others decried that they were "green-washing" or "purpose-washing:" simply making themselves look good without authentic action.

In reality, large corporations have understood for a long time the importance of creating value for all stakeholders, including their employees, customers, suppliers and communities, as well as their investors, and the Business Roundtable statement just updated the executives' outward-facing communications to confirm a direction that is both underway and unstoppable.

The statement shows a recognition of two facts:

1.       The business case for creating stakeholder value has already been proved. Without creating value for a variety of stakeholders, and without mitigating the risks associated with subtracting value from stakeholders, a company can't deliver profits to shareholders anyway, at least not over the medium to long term. Creating value for stakeholders, when managed strategically, doesn't take away from enhancing profits for shareholders, it adds to it. It is part of good management. This is not a zero-sum tradeoff.

2.       The U.S. economy is suffering from fallout from short-termism, that is, investors squeezing profits out of companies with a shorter and shorter time horizon. Companies pressured to deliver greater and greater profit margins to their financial owners in the space of a quarter, or less, might not be making the investments and strategic directional decisions that will allow them to thrive in the longer term.

The Business Roundtable statement begins: "Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity. We believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all." 

For a long time the U.S. was known around the world as a "meritocracy." U.S. policy aimed to provide citizens with equal opportunity, for example through public education or public libraries, and to reward those who worked hard and applied their talent. The "American Dream" refers to the aspiration of immigrants from around the world that they could come to America and within a generation, see the fruits of their labor rewarded through upward social mobility.

But Michael Young, the U.K. Labour Party strategist who coined the term "meritocracy," knew that once the most talented workers rose through the capitalist system, over time this new elite would naturally consolidate its power, leaving behind those less equipped to succeed, and eventually stratifying society.

The fact that this has occurred in America is widely known, and most political campaigns on both sides of the spectrum claim to want to address the extreme levels of societal stratification now so evident.

The Business Roundtable has recognized that while corporations must be well-managed for the benefit of their owners, U.S. capitalism needs to find ways to ensure a longer-term vision than the one that has morphed out of the automation of stock trading, the rise of passive investing, and the power of activist shareholders wanting to squeeze value out of a company no matter the broader context. The investor community itself has been alarmed, as evidenced by the rise of a movement subscribing to "Principles for Responsible Investment," which promotes inclusion of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in evaluating investments, and which now has more than 2300 signatories representing more than 80 trillion dollars in assets under management.

Tensie Whelan, director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, notes the difference between value extraction from a company (through "maximizing short-term profits and boosting stock price, often at the expense of stakeholders other than shareholders") and value creation for a company. NYU research into certain case studies shows a positive financial return on sustainability investments, with many long-term benefits.

Indeed, sustainability, or attention to ESG factors, is the way large corporations are creating value for the company, and therefore for all stakeholders including shareholders. A European Union directive now requires companies to provide non-financial (ESG) reporting to investors as well as financial reporting. Creating value for all stakeholders isn't a foreign concept to European companies, whose cultural context has historically favored this idea.

Kudos to the Business Roundtable for bringing its statement on purpose into line with 21st century practices. The statement is a signpost that will most certainly make it easier for companies to implement purposeful strategies.

Published on: Aug 26, 2019
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