The company is (already) a political actor

(updated on 7 January 2018)

On Friday 5 January 2018, a new mission was entrusted by the government to Jean-Dominique Senard and Nicole Notat on the redefinition of the role of the company. If political or even regulatory debates are emerging to redefine the role and missions of companies, in reality they are, once again, only following a movement that is already well established and already underway.

In January 2011, I had the opportunity to express a conviction based on a long analysis of opinion trends and corporate CSR commitments. This was at the occasion ofan article in Influencia magazine: "When brands become political actorsin response to Dominique Wolton: companies are not reduced to marketing and financial equations. Corporate brandsThe 'tee', as it is called, is more important than ever.s public and political responsibilities as a that the parties preWe need to make sure that our citizens are fully integrated and co-responsible for the challenges facing society. Alain Renaudin answers Dominique Wolton.

On 24 December 2010, the brand Benetton inaugurated in Libya, via its research centre La FabricaA statue in honour of peace and the Libyan revolution. The statue is entitled "Unhate Dove" (Dove for Dove), and is therefore part of Benetton and its foundation's global "Unhate" communication campaign.

This raises the question of the legitimacy of a brand to be so ostensibly and thoughtfully (some would say calculatedly) involved in a country's politics. Of course, one could argue that Benetton should stick to making jumpers, to its own products and to its own political agenda.It is important to remember that the business world is not a business, and that a business is, after all, only an organisation that aims to design, produce and sell goods and services to its customers, within the regulatory framework set by the legislator. A few weeks ago Dominique Wolton stated in the columns ofINfluencia that "brands are not political actors"..

For once, and with the greatest esteem I can muster for Mr Wolton, I disagree and even disagree, considering on the contrary that brands are, and even should be, political actors. Not political actors in the partisan (often dogmatic) sense of the term, but political actors in the sense of involvement in the way our social community functions. Faced with the contemporary challenges we face, we are all stakeholders in a common destiny, interconnected and interdependent, and no one should live in his or her own bubble, least of all economic organisations and actors with a strong capacity to influence the course of events, through their economic weight or simply through their influence.

Companies cannot be reduced to marketing and financial equations, let's be consistent, that's all they are criticised for being too. Companies are communities of men and women who are no less endowed with convictions, feelings and values, which do not disappear as soon as they cross the threshold of their employers' doors. These companies today are on the move, in search of meaning, in need of mobilisation, support and innovation, their values are not limited to a list of pious wishes in their institutional brochure, sometimes they are translated into action.

Companies are committed, and even claim to be, in terms of social and environmental responsibility, for example, and that is the least we expect of them. It is desirable, for the benefit of all, including themselves, that companies are less and less disconnected from political issues. So yes, a company can display political commitments. I would say that its only limit is that of its sincerity, its legitimacy, and the transformation of its commitments into actions.

Moreover, I do not see how a company could be hindered in displaying a 'political' bias (societal vision). After all, it is a private organisation which, like the sacred freedom of the press, also has its own freedom of thought. In France, we can even regret the excessive compartmentalisation between political decision-makers and economic actors. I'm not talking about the networks that exist side by side, but about the Assumed and uninhibited collaboration between public and private spheres which would be so beneficial in these pivotal times. France still has to make a cultural revolution on this subject and purge its puritanism.

In recent years, appointments of 'civilians' to government positions have been rather limited and mixed in terms of results, probably mainly due to cultural and managerial differences. This is a pity at a time when cultural diversity should be a source of inspiration and renewal. Perhaps the new attempt to appoint civilians in Edouard Philippe's government will be more successful.

On the other hand, political leaders and their movements are frequently criticised and even suffer from a certain disaffection, even powerlessness to face the challenges. The economic sphere is mostly perceived through the distorting and caricatural prism of financial predominance, but is still considered the only one likely to create wealth and growth. And yet, do you often hear the opinions of business leaders in electoral campaigns or during economic debates? Their points of view, testimonies and convictions could certainly give rise to debate, but would certainly be interesting. Politicians have too much of a monopoly on political debate, and business leaders are far too unknown and absent from the sphere of public debate. Who knows the leaders of the CAC 40?

Brands, or more precisely 'corporate brands', have more than ever public and political responsibilities as integrated stakeholders and co-responsible for our societal challenges.

Beyond globalisation, which is often dogmatised, we must above all see that we are living in an era of interconnections, of total temporal and spatial porosity. Everyone is an actor, everyone is responsible, and above all everyone is a co-determiner. This "everyone" is us, but it is also each private or public entity.

The public no longer has a monopoly on political action in the sense of managing the common good, nor does it have the means, and perhaps even the skills. It is now up to collective intelligence to work. So if brands have convictions and political projects, and can be heard, or even followed, they are welcome, more than ever.

This has been the case for a long time. Entrepreneurs have always been social and territorial actors. During much of the 19th and 20th centuries, they were called "paternalistic" companiesIn the past, these companies were concerned about "their" workers, their living conditions, their families and their training (some engineering schools were first created for workers before being created for managers). Later, in a sometimes pejorative way, some "social" bosses were called "left-wing bosses" (even if 1974 had shown that they did not have a monopoly on the heart, but that's another story).

In the more recent past (and to make a long story short), it is obviously the emergence of sustainable development (Brundtland report in 1987); the affirmation of the responsibility of human activities on climate change (2001 _ 3rd IPCC report); the (French) laws on the obligation to account for the social and environmental impacts of listed companies; and finally, for a few years now (around the turn of the 2010's), the implementation of pro-active and voluntarist approaches by the companies themselves, notably within the framework of their sustainable development or CSR policies. This is for a number of reasons (reputation, internal, NGOs, stakeholders, etc.) but undoubtedly mainly because of theemergence of a major double accelerator effect: the quest for meaning and economic rationalism.

It is a much more established idea among the general public and business leaders than is believed, that sustainable development is not only possible but also PROFITABLE.

As early as the mid-2000s, the studies that I had set up at Ifop when I began to specialise in this subject showed that business leaders saw sustainable development more as a source of opportunities than as a constraint, and even as a necessary condition for preserving market share and growth. At the bottom of this article you will find a link to a KMPG study carried out in 2008 on the occasion of the Earth Summit, which confirmed what was at the time a developing trend. Many other studies, on which I was involved or not, confirmed this dynamic.

The general public was not to be outdone and believed that sustainable development was not only compatible with the profitability objectives of companies, but even beneficial. As a result we have experienced a long period of great confusion, great paradox and above all a missed opportunity that we are only just beginning to make up for today. This period was one of castrating ecology, incompatible with growth, moralising, regulatory, punitive...: ecology was badly sold. It was also too politicised, phagocytized (in France in particular) by a political party with no credit, no charisma, no coherence, no leadership. In short, it was a bad argument and a bad horse, but above all it was an error of social and political interpretation: ecology is not a political issue, it is a social issue and nobody has a monopoly on it. The political debate on ecology is not: "for or against" ecology, but "how" ecology. An ecology that is badly sold, but also badly "exploited" by the economic actors themselves, who could have seen an opportunity to educate in a French social and cultural environment where the economy and the markets are necessarily harmful. What is 'good', necessarily, cannot do any good. We are still partly in this period. This does not mean that ecology and environmental protection do not require efforts, it means that these issues do not require - exclusively - efforts. It is obviously necessary to raise awareness of waste and irresponsible behaviour, but it is also necessary to change the way we look at the environment so that we also see it as a source of prosperity, as a compatible, inspiring and positive factor. It is therefore a question of 'reintegrating' ecology into our economic ecosystem. The formula sounds stupid, because detaching ourselves from ecology, i.e. from ourselves, is in fact impossible. Yet this is what we thought we could do, unconsciously, throughout the century-long industrial revolution between the 19th and 20th centuries. Rediscovering ecology as an ally and not as a constraint is undoubtedly one of the keys to the paradigm shift sought as a quest for the Grail.

Along the way, the 2008 financial crisis did not help matters: short-term, financial, "that world" cannot be interested in ecology, a "humanistic" and long-term subject. Companies have therefore preferred to keep quiet or, let's say, to be fairly discreet, believing that "noise does no good, and good does not make any noise".

Today we are entering a new phase, in which, little by little, companies will increasingly express themselves on ecology and more globally on their societal role. We saw this again recently with the companies that were partners of the States at the OnePlanetSummit, committed and willing, for their own good and for the good of all. Without being angelic, but because we must understand that nothing is independent or disconnected any more. We are living through a great collective change, driven by different factors, at different speeds and scales, but not imposed from outside, driven by a slow but powerful dynamic, which is called the direction of history.

Economic actors are discovering their "interest" in Sustainable Development. We are moving from the welfare state (which is no longer welfare but still believes it is) to an idea of the welfare enterprise (which is beginning to understand this but is not always ready). 



In addition:

KMPG study carried out in 2008 on the occasion of the Earth Summit

The keys to good sustainable development communication

Why has the environment been so badly sold to the French?

The future is in co-entrepreneurship