By Joanna Weightman, Campaigns Officer – Individuals, ShareAction

We’d be lying if we said it’s been an easy year. Covid-19 threw a spanner into the AGM activism works.

You might think that Covid-19 would stop us in our tracks!

In fact, if anything, this year we were more energised than ever to hold CEOs and boards to account.

Covid-19 laid bare the risks that we face. It has exposed the huge economic and emotional burden of a rise of insecure working practices.

It also shined a spotlight on the importance of building a heathier society, and ensuring resilience to the systemic risks we face – with climate change still front and centre.

It’s never been more important for us to challenge companies.

Few companies chose to hold virtual AGMs, allowing shareholder to asks questions in real time. Companies like Taylor Wimpey, Schroders, RSA Insurance Group and M&S, were the welcome exception.

Nonetheless, we persevered, and when the companies went behind closed doors, we held them to account publicly in other ways.

It’s been difficult, but we’ve still done it, and so far, this year AGM activists have asked 75 AGM questions by email, video and live during virtual AGMs – with more to come.

As we look back on this year’s AGM season, there are some successes that stand out!

 

1) We asked AGM questions in the US for the first time

This year for the first time in ShareAction history, we traversed the Atlantic Ocean (virtually) and asked questions at AGMs in the US.

CRIN member Lankelly Chase questioned Pepsi-co, and other AGM activists addressed Coca-Cola, and Kellogg’s on their stance on childhood obesity, and why they’re not doing more to tackle it in the US and beyond.

 

2) Our AGM activism moved to Twitter

Where companies went completely behind closed doors, we took to Twitter.

While companies allowed for written questions via email – we didn’t think this was enough. It meant our questions would not be heard by other investors, as they are at traditional AGMs.

So, our AGM activists recorded and published our questions on Twitter. The highlight was undoubtedly Drax – who responded to us in an exchange of Twitter that you can see here.

We also told Melrose and Hammerson that their gender pay gap is unacceptable, suggested that Admiral and WPP should sign up to the RE100, and asked Ocado to join the EV100, to promote healthier diets, and sign up to pay the Living wage.

Visit our Twitter page to see them all!

 

3) The UK’s biggest pension provider backed our Tesco question

The UK’s biggest pension provider (by membership) Nest, as well as EQ Investors,  backed our question to Tesco on the need to boost healthy products post Covid-19.

This is a great example of how our pension providers can do more than just pick companies to invest in or not. They can be stewards of our money and society by engaging with the companies they are invested in.

We’d love to see more of our pension providers do this in the future.

 

4) We asked Covid-19 relevant questions on decent work

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on our reliance on low-paid workers to help keep society running. With so many of these workers paying the health and economic price of the crisis, our questions to companies were more important than ever.

We challenged companies on insecure work practices for the first time, highlighting the importance of protecting their workforce in times of crisis.

Moreover, with supermarket staff being key workers during the pandemic, we challenged Sainsbury’s on why we challenged Sainsbury’s on why they are not an accredited Living Wage employer. As a result of our question, they agreed to meet with us.

Fingers crossed that we can persuade them when we do!

 

5) We took the climate fight to the banking sector

Our supporters haven’t just pressured companies through AGM questions this year.

With the help of 130 supporters (check out our blog) we were able to file our own resolution at Barclays – which has been providing more funding to fossil fuels than any other European bank.

The resolution asked Barclays to phase out financing of fossil fuel companies and was backed by some of the biggest pension funds in the country, including West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester .

This was in no small part thanks to the 750 plus of you who asked them to do so!

Moreover, USS (the UK pension scheme with the most money under management) asked their asset managers to vote in favour after receiving our emails too!

And while the resolution didn’t pass – it is a massive step forward, and sent shockwaves through the banking sector.

With other companies such as Total and Shell having faced similar resolutions this year it shows that shareholder activism doesn’t just have to be about AGM questions; there are companies!

AGM questions, although in a different format this year, have allowed us and our supporters to raise awareness of environmental, social and health issues, holding companies to account and inciting change.

We’ve had to be creative this year, but the impact has been just as widespread as any year before. What a ‘normal’ AGM will look like in the future has been a topic of discussion throughout the Coronavirus crisis, and we’re interested to see what shape they’ll take next year.

If you’re interested in becoming an AGM activist, get in touch with Jo (joanna.weightman@shareaction.org), or jump over to our AGM activism webpage.  Alternatively, sign up to our dedicated AGM activism email here for information on chances to get involved.