Incorporating Citizens: Corporate Political Engagement with Climate Change

Orson Welles Citizen Kane (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Orson Welles Citizen Kane (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Business corporations are key players in the on-going political debate surrounding climate change. In producing the goods and services of the global consumer economy, corporations are major producers of greenhouse gas emissions. However, corporations can also play a leading role in the mitigation of those emissions through increased efficiencies and the development of new technologies. As a result, the business response to climate change can often appear conflictual. ‘Corporate greening’ and innovation contrast with examples of business obfuscation and the organised funding of climate change denial (e.g. as this recent documentary outlines).

Recently, Daniel Nyberg, André Spicer and I published an article in the journal Organization exploring the concept of ‘corporate citizenship’ and its relationship to climate change. Literature on ‘corporate citizenship‘ explores how corporations shape the delivery of basic rights in societies. While liberal commentators argue that corporations can act as protectors of citizenship rights where state regulation is lacking, more radical commentators propose that corporations often seek to obstruct these rights. In our article we sought to build on theories of hegemony to argue that corporate citizenship can be more fruitfully understood as an attempt to incorporate citizenship activities in order to benefit corporate agendas.

To explore how this process plays out we examined how companies have sought to influence the political debate over climate change in Australia. Here we identified how corporations use different practices in seeking to build a common identity with citizens and synchronize corporate and citizen interests.

For example, ‘campaigning‘ involved attempts to shape the political agenda surrounding climate change in ways that benefited business objectives. This included formal submissions to government, lobbying of ministers and bureaucrats, media releases, interviews and conference presentations, as well as building alliances with like-minded companies, industry associations, opposition politicians, think-tanks and NGOs. For instance, in the debate surrounding the Labor government’s proposed CPRS and later Clean Energy legislation, mining and manufacturing groups funded television and newspaper advertisements opposing the legislation, emphasizing the threat to jobs and arguing that pricing carbon emissions would do little to solve climate change. Industry bodies, think-tanks and mining magnates also financed visits by prominent climate change deniers which generated significant media attention and further undermined public support for climate action.

Campaigning against the 'carbon tax' (industry website)
Campaigning against the ‘carbon tax’ (industry website)

This corporate campaigning was not only limited to those organizations opposing the pricing of carbon emissions, but extended to others such as the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change which viewed climate change as a threat to their businesses and published reports in an effort to build broader community support for government action to reduce GHG emissions.

A second way in which corporations sought to engage in the climate change debate was by promoting themselves as responsible organizations concerned about the environment and future generations; a practice we termed ‘exemplifying’. Here, companies presented themselves as role-models which embodied the practices and innovative capabilities required to ensure the well-being of present and future generations. In sustainability reports, webpages and other documentation, corporations promoted their own voluntary initiatives (sometimes linked to a market-based mechanism of pricing carbon emissions), as well as new products and technologies, as the best response to climate change. Corporate legitimacy was hence claimed through self regulation, marketing and public relations.

More generally, we were interested in what implications these corporate activities might have for our understanding of ‘citizenship’ more broadly. Here we argued that ‘corporate citizenship’ involves the recasting of ordinary citizens in particular roles which best fit the value creating activities of corporations. For instance:

  • active constituents‘ – in which individuals actively support corporate funded political campaigns. So for instance, in framing the public campaign against the government’s ‘carbon tax’, industry advertisements emphasized the voices of citizens such as factory workers, miners, small-business owners and consumers opposing the government’s pricing of carbon emissions as a threat to their jobs, businesses and the economy;
  • responsible consumers‘ – here citizens can exercise their political rights by buying into the fantasies and ideologies which companies produce through the images and information of advertising and PR initiatives. For instance, companies might use their green image as a way of attracting new consumers, or conversely promote their interests in ‘jobs’ and ‘development’ to harness citizenly support for their products and services. Exercising one’s citizenship rights then becomes equated with voting with your dollar.
  • ethical employees‘ – here individual citizens as employees link their personal environmental concerns with their job and career choices, for example by choosing to work for ‘ethical’ companies or those they see as contributing to economic development and the ‘national interest’;
  • ecopreneurs‘- connecting people’s environmental passions with a belief in corporate and technological innovation through for example employee competitions for improving organizational sustainability or reducing carbon emissions. Here, the citizen combines their environmental concerns with their business and entrepreneurial acumen.

Of course the intervention of business within the political realm is nothing new. What is new is the sophistication and reach of corporate influence in our daily lives as citizens. An issue such as climate change, with its profound implications for the future of humanity, simply ups the stakes.

You can access the article here.

3 thoughts on “Incorporating Citizens: Corporate Political Engagement with Climate Change”

  1. Chris wonderful essay, very appreciative of your comments as I work in the private sector. With permission, I’d love to repost this.

    Mike @ WtD

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