This is an opinion piece by Martin Whittaker, CEO of JUST Capital, a nonprofit research organization that seeks to provide all our society’s stakeholders—employees, concerned citizens, business leaders and others—with the information they need to assess how just companies are.
With corporate tax reform moving forward in Congress and equity markets hitting a string of record highs, it’s easy to understand why America’s CEOs express such high confidence in the economy roughly one year after Donald Trump’s election.
But while optimism is running high among top executives, the American public doesn’t feel nearly as confident in corporate America. Recent polling shows that 62 percent of Americans distrust corporations today, and 47 percent think business behavior is headed in the wrong direction.
Winning back public trust is a business priority today that corporate leaders cannot afford to ignore. Just ask companies like Uber, where the new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is leading an overhaul of the company’s internal culture and its practices for engaging with the public following a series of scandals earlier this year.
Admittedly, aligning business practices with public values and priorities is not an easy process. One of the reasons CEOs have struggled to successfully address the priorities of ordinary Americans is that they haven’t had rigorous data showing what the American people actually want companies to prioritize.
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Looking to fill this gap, JUST Capital—a nonprofit that measures the performance of U.S. companies on the issues Americans care about most—set out to create the Roadmap for Corporate America. Over the past three years, JUST Capital has surveyed over 70,000 Americans across all demographics – liberal, conservative, high-income, low-income, men, women, millennials, and boomers – to identify in concrete terms the precise criteria for just corporate behavior. Three things stand out.
First, there’s a lot more agreement than dissent among Americans when it comes to basic priorities and what companies should do to become more just. Across age, gender, income, and even political ideology, Americans value more or less the same things: fair pay and employee wellbeing, customer treatment, environmental impact, community benefit, and more.
Second, putting workers first – paying a fair and living wage, eliminating discrimination in pay, and providing a safe workplace – is over twice as important as job creation alone and nearly four times as important as the needs of shareholders and managers. This is not surprising, given that over 26 million working families are reliant on public subsidies to make ends meet and fewer than 30 percent of wage earners make more than $50k a year. Some companies have recently started to implement changes that address this demand for better worker pay and treatment, such as Target, which announced this year it is raising pay for its employees to $15 an hour by 2020.
Third, people are thirsting for more transparent, accurate, and accessible information of this kind. Americans are increasingly willing to buy from, invest in, and work for just companies, with 85 percent willing to pay more for a product made by a just company and 79 percent saying they would take a pay cut to work for a firm that aligns with their values. As public awareness grows surrounding corporate performance on the issues Americans care about most, the market will reward corporate leaders willing to take action on those issues.
Few would disagree with the view that addressing the country’s deep-rooted social, economic and environmental challenges requires harnessing the resources of the private sector. The question is not whether this should happen, but how. It’s not that Americans are turning to socialism – they want companies to take the lead by aligning their way of doing business with the priorities of the public.
By following this new brand of American capitalism that inheres extraordinary virtues and great deeds, CEOs can effectively win back the trust of the public. It won’t be simple or easy, but with rigorous data about Americans’ priorities in the hands of companies, consumers, investors, and workers, corporate leaders can usher in a new era in which the American people can be empowered, their voices newly and earnestly heard. Or, in the words of the new administration, they can “Make Corporate America Great Again.”