By Penelope Turton, AGM activist
As someone greatly troubled by the multiple threats posed by climate change I was glad to have the opportunity to challenge one of the UK’s biggest mining companies – Anglo American (AA) – at their recent Annual General Meeting (AGM). The focus was on their membership of trade associations whose lobbying activities were at odds with their stated commitment to responsible action to address the causes of climate change.
I was well briefed by the ShareAction team. I knew that investor concern about trade associations lobbying activities was hotting up. Several recent companies had faced shareholder resolutions at their AGMs, applying pressure to ensure their memberships were not misaligned with their declared lip service to the Paris agreement. These had garnered widespread publicity and had led to positive change.
My briefing notes also informed me that despite AA’s stated support for the Paris Agreement it remained a member of obstructive trade associations, such as the World Coal Association. At the same time, details on how the company identified and actively managed these links were lacking. My given question was:
“Will the board commit to disclosing a full list of its climate-related trade association memberships and to developing a mechanism to identify and manage any misalignment in positions on climate-related issues?”
As it turned out, another shareholder activist was plotting a similar question! This was unbeknown to ShareAction until the morning of the AGM. And as he represented a much larger-scale investor (with more clout) Michael and I agreed that he should go first and I would come in behind with a follow-up question.
Well researched questions combined with polite but firm challenge in a public forum really does have the potential to influence opinion and behaviour where it counts.
The Queen Elizabeth Centre in Westminster is the largest dedicated conference space in central London. There was a considerable crowd milling about the reception area so it proved quite a challenge to identify my fellow questioner. He eventually turned out to be one of a coordinated group from Climate Action 100 who had registered for a number of related questions. We formed a little huddle to hastily devise a strategy for my question before filing into the hall to be met by a questioners’ steward who told us where to sit and gave us our running order.
The hall had a long raised stage for the Board to sit across, creating some distance between them and the rows of shareholders and staff. All quite daunting! The first part of the AGM followed its normal course, with the Chair and Chief Executive delivering presentations designed to reinforce investor confidence in the company’s performance over the past year and its ambitious (but appropriately researched) plans for the coming year. Then the floor was open to questions. There were more than a dozen, at least four of which were on climate change (mine being last). Very encouraging.
I tried to note and monitor the climate change questions and the Chair’s responses to them at the same time as tweaking my own question to ensure it wasn’t a simple repetition. (I feared this could risk alienating rather than engaging other shareholders.) Thinking on my feet and redrafting my question in this way proved quite a challenge and in consequence I was not as fluent as I would have liked. However, to cut to the chase…
The Chair responded sympathetically to the questions. He made a firm commitment to be fully transparent about AA’s support of industry associations, its financial contributions and its ongoing policy positions. He also said the company would make it very clear where there were policy differences with a lobby group of whom they were a member. He did however fall short of any commitment to leave such a lobby group, arguing the company could apply its good influence more keenly by staying in and pushing their view. He appeared entirely open to more direct engagement with the company as they flesh out their policy and put it to the Board in the coming months.
I found the general response to AGM activism courteous, non-defensive, and apparently ready to listen and engage. The company appeared eager to prove their commitment to collaborative practice and to “doing the right thing” by all stakeholders
Unfortunately it turned out that the appropriate Board member, the Chair of the Sustainability Committee, was the only member of the Board to be absent that afternoon due to illness. However, the Group Chief Information Officer gave me his contact details at the end of the meeting. While he wasn’t that knowledgeable about the topic of my question, he declared himself happy to talk to anyone from ShareAction and to facilitate our being in touch with whomsoever we sought.
Overall I found the general response to AGM activism courteous, non-defensive, and apparently ready to listen and engage. The company appeared eager to prove their commitment to collaborative practice and to “doing the right thing” by all stakeholders. (It should perhaps be added that there was sometimes an uncomfortable disjunction between this rhetoric and the tough questioning by a number of shareholders representing communities who felt themselves seriously harmed by AA operations and their failure to get their grievances addressed or compensated.)
All in all, I felt that AGM Activism is clearly alive and muscular! And that well researched questions combined with polite but firm challenge in a public forum really does have the potential to influence opinion and behaviour where it counts.
Thanks Penelope! To learn more about our AGM activism work, click here.