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CSOs weigh in: How political polarization is affecting corporate sustainability

Anyone with a passing interest in the news can see that political polarization defines U.S. politics. Recently, I have been wondering how that polarization affects the sustainability function, which focuses on some hot-button issues such as climate change, gender equality, wage disparities and even immigration.

For the second article in my series offering insights from U.S.-based CSOs on trending issues, I put this question to a number of CSOs in my network. (My first article in this series — building on the Weinreb Group’s latest research on CSOs — focused on the makeup of sustainability teams.) Interestingly, everyone who responded said political polarization has had little impact on their strategy and programs. This was the opposite of what I was expecting to hear.

MGM Resorts CSO Cindy Ortega’s response captured the sentiments of many CSOs who responded to my outreach. Ortega said she has not seen "any implications from the political divide or polarization that have reached a level that we would alter the development of execution of our sustainability strategies."

However, the CSOs did say that political turmoil has affected the way they position and talk about sustainability. "I can’t say it is having a major operational impact, but it does force us to be more thoughtful and considerate in taking positions and communicating externally in all channels," said Campbell Soup CSO Dave Stangis.

The CSOs I polled said political polarization has three main implications for corporate sustainability: on materiality; transparency; and long-term commitments.

Materiality matters

In the face of today’s stormy political climate, many CSOs point to the stability of the materiality process, which helps companies prioritize and build ambitious, long-term goals. "While we are keenly attuned to global politics, staying focused on what matters most is critical to delivering steady progress," said Owens Corning CSO Frank O’Brien-Bernini.

In effect, even if the political winds change, sustainability priorities do not. This focus helps companies weather political turmoil. "We serve millions of customers every day, so our stakeholders cover the spectrum of political views," noted Tamara Barker, CSO at UPS. "To ensure we’re addressing the issues most important to our stakeholders and our business, we use insights from our materiality assessment to guide our strategy and initiatives."

Transparency supports understanding, even if people disagree

Every global company has a diverse employee and customer base, which means opinions and beliefs span the political spectrum. The CSOs I spoke to said transparency about what the company prioritizes and why builds understanding, even if individual customers or employees don’t agree with every company sustainability priority.

"AT&T is a microcosm of the United States: We have employees of almost every culture, race, gender, sexual orientation and political persuasion in towns and cities all across this country," said AT&T CSO Charlene Lake. "When we engage in social and political issues, it’s important that we are transparent about our motivations and give our employees a way to voice their opinions."

Lake added that as AT&T’s strategies are based on corporate values (as opposed to shifting political priorities), this helps employees and customers understand the company’s investments and decisions. And the company makes sure those priorities are clear. "We’ve found that our reliance on those values and our need to point to them as our anchor of involvement has increased in tandem with society’s rancor and dissension," she said.

Corporate sustainability continues, even if political priorities change

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. government has flipped positions on critical sustainability issues such as climate change and the protection of public lands and natural resources. There also have been heated political conversations around issues such as gender equality, sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, and immigration.

Many CSOs told me these developments have highlighted the importance of corporate sustainability action — to maintain forward momentum even if policies are rolled back or political debate creates a deadlock.

MGM Resort’s Ortega said that even as the Trump administration has reversed U.S. policies on climate change, the corporate sector is stepping up. "Many leading companies, including MGM Resorts, have joined voices to unde

rscore the criticality of fighting climate change," she said.

Another CSO, who requested anonymity, noted that just because politics are divisive doesn’t mean that key stakeholders don’t want action. "Despite these external trends of polarization, we find that employees remain engaged in wanting to make the world a better place — in particular, to protect the vulnerable."

Christopher Wellise, CSO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, said that even though the company stays above the political fray as a business-to-business enterprise, he has noticed a "doubling-down effect on sustainability in reaction to some aspects of the political trend."

I admittedly lose sleep over the state of U.S. politics, but I found my conversations with these CSOs heartening: Even if the nation appears divided, there appears to be common ground centered around sustainability values, and the company leaders I spoke to are clearly committed to progress — now more than ever.

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