How can a large company become involved, ethically, in global politics?

This is probably the most fundamental question facing really large
companies in the next twenty years.
At least, those large companies with a commitment to ethics and
sustainability.
Which, among the really big ones, is most of them.
In the last fifteen years we’ve seen many large businesses begin to dip
their toes in the political waters. 

This has almost always, understandably,
been through collective action.

The first couple of these were probably initiatives such as the Extractive Industry
Transparency Initiative
(EITI) and the Kimberly
Process
, amongst others.
These two became specifically involved in politics, unlike some of the
other issue or industry based groups, such the Ethical Trading
Initiative
or International Cocoa Initiative, to name a couple. 

Their engagement has been more with companies, communities, and NGOs, with the
odd political foray.

They have had a predictably slow and uneven passage, but EITI in
particular, seem to be making steady political inroads with regard to the
challenge of revenue transparency, extractive firms and richer and emerging
market states.
Much more recently, issue/sector agreements such as the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh are
bringing garment retailers into a political space they have little experience
of, if they want to drive real progress. (The alternative is to create a few
islands of factory sourcing excellence whilst neighbours occasionally burn and
collapse around these, which won’t work for campaigners or consumers
)
Looking more broadly, the other two groups that stand out for me are the
WBCSD and the WEF.
To break down the acronyms a little, these are the World Business for
Sustainable Development and the World Economic Forum (WEF)
(One might try and add the UN Global Compact in here, but for me they
are too unfocused and poorly governed to be effective beyond their regional
networks, which do a good, if limited job
These two, the WBCSD and the WEF, have attempted to drive sustainability
and corporate responsibility hard onto government agendas through the
collective power of their assembled brands and the reports that are then
produced. (Vision 2050 by WBCSD in particular)
These efforts, whilst laudable, have had limited impact.
Governments, dominated either by popular unrest and falling growth, or
the short term nature of democratic cycles, (often both) struggle to focus on
calls for action by 2020 or 2050.
So what’s to be done? To discuss that we have to accept a few things,
namely:
1) Big business cannot be on the path to increased sustainability
without having a holistic plan without major issue gaps (Unilever, Sainsbury’s,
Coca-Cola Enterprises, PepsiCo, Puma/PPR etc. etc.)
2) These plans cannot be realised without cross-industry action and
collaboration
3) That collaboration can only have limited impact without political
changes (incentives, regulation and enforcement, name and shame etc.)
4) That political changes are inevitably short term and based
predominantly on self-interest by political parties or dictator-style systems
5) Given 4) – Governments will not change incentive or regulatory
systems significantly on their own and do not have the resources, talent or
time to think through what these change may look like and how they will be
enforced and affect the electorate
So if we accept all this: How can a large company become involved,
ethically in global politics?
I say global because the issues (sourcing, corruption, deforestation,
climate, bad bureaucracy, dumb incentives, outdated systems) are global. So are
the companies. That’s obvious.
What can you do, as a large company, to help contribute to systems
change that tackles these challenges?
This is the toughest question facing CEOs such as Paul Polman at
Unilever or Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, when they have time to think about it.
Here are a few ideas for companies who want to engage in this most
difficult of questions:
1.     First,
build a proper global policy and research team. Fund them and keep them,
let them educate themselves, and your management team, on the issues,
materiality and possibly, issue by issue solutions 
2.     Develop
defensible (first) and ambitious positions
on issues. That
might be water policy or labour standards enforcement. The positions of course
are first governed by materiality, secondly by global significance for your
business and your stakeholders
3.     Look again at point 2
above. How ambitious are you being? If your company is to meet ambitious
targets you need to engage beyond your own company and even your own value
chain
4.      Push
hard at the forums and associations
where your company is a member so that
they are at the top of their game, or closer to it, rather than, like an
infantry unit, marching at the pace of the slowest member. If they can’t speed
up, leave, publicly and/or create a leadership group
5.     Advocate
systems change
on easier win issues first. Where is the low
hanging fruit which you and your fellow companies can push on via your industry
or issue body? How far can you go, and what can you expect to gain, and by
when? Do you start regionally with like-minded companies? Maybe, as long as the
ambition to go further exists, that’s fine
6.     Do not
donate to political parties
anywhere. Demand that your suppliers do not
either. You can’t stop employees donating, but make it clear that’s on their
own time
7.     Take a
public position that corporate political donations are wrong. But
acknowledge that governments desperately need skilled help. Switching lobbyists
back and forth into government (as happens in the UK) does not help build the
capacity that’s needed. Think harder. For example BP funds the Oxford Centre for
the Analysis of Resource Rich Economies
. What can your company – or
industry – do that helps contribute to long lasting capacity building for
better decisions?
8.     Be
transparent about dealings
, financial or otherwise with government. It may
cost you a contract or two, but the long term impacts are worth the trade-off.
Not all conversations need to be on the record though, and acknowledgment that
some are off the record and when, is a tough balance
9.     Take
criticism on the chin
. Many people hate the idea of large companies
having a position on anything. The argument that “there’s no such thing as
business ethics, only the ethics of individual business people” still
holds much sway. Having a long term position is something that’s very new for a
company, particularly given that long term position, as part of a
sustainability plan, must be seen to withstand several leadership transfers
10.  Hire
lawyers
(there’s two words I thought I’d never write) to make sure you are not
falling afoul of anti-cartel regulations when you negotiate with peers and
competitors on pre-competitive issues (supply chain basic standards, climate
change, corruption etc.) If that competition law is the problem: what can your
policy team – and other stakeholders and companies – suggest needs to be
amended about it to drive progress?
11.  Find
existing and new progressive organisations
to support and
challenge them to go further, faster. For example the Institute for Human Rights
and Business
is becoming more vocal and practical (look at their
work on Burma) and need long-term support
12.  Make it
clear to investors
that this part of strategy, and educate them as to
why careful, long term engagement in progressive, collaborative and
multi-stakeholder driven systems change is vital to future success
13.  Always
think collaboration
. The term may have negative overtones in some
cultures so rename it if you have to. Do remember that very few companies, if
any, changed much of anything on their own. We all love our icon stories about
the Body Shop or Ben and Jerry’s, but the reality is that leadership companies,
possibly with exceptions of Patagonia and Interface (then not now) have always
achieved more in partnership than alone
14. Institutions and social capital matter more than you know. These two areas are not well understood. The first is how fundamental governance happens on a day to day basis, the second is how people feel about that, at any one time, and their level of trust as a result. In emerging markets institutions are almost always weak. Most business/NGO CR partnerships do not yet aim to address the fundamental capacity, resource and design challenges of institutional development and longevity. This must change. Look at Bangladesh as an example.
I did suggest at the beginning of this piece that the challenge is the
biggest one facing sustainably-minded large companies in the next twenty years
and beyond.
There are only a handful of companies thinking part-time about the
above.
Many of my suggestions may be naive, ill-judged or simply mistaken, but
one thing I can guarantee you is that many more companies will soon start to
think about the title question than are today.
The question is when, exactly. 
(Here’s a new interactive resource that might be useful, take a look)