By Joanna Weightman, Shareholder Activism Coordinator
Protests. They have been in the news recently for a variety of different reasons, but all have one goal in mind; to incite change. Whether it be locking yourself inside a shipping container outside an Oil conglomerate’s headquarters, or placing a bright pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus, it is hard to deny that activism is on the rise, and more than often it’s grandparents, young adults, and a new wave of activists who are increasingly concerned about the lack of concern big business is showing.
These kinds of protest have challenged the status quo of big business and government and have allowed groups en mass to have their voices heard. There is no doubting that this is an effective route to change; however, at ShareAction, we have a different method up our sleeve, which has enabled the voice of protest to be heard inside the board room, and has proven itself to be invaluable in changing ideas and paths in the corporate world.
It started over a decade ago and is now a part of ShareAction everyday life: AGM activism. Clutching a certificate making claim to just one share, we have a ticket into the annual general meetings (AGMs) of some of the UK’s biggest companies. Our AGM activists have been traversing the country, showing up at AGMs and holding FTSE100 companies to account on environmental and social justice, with carefully worded and powerful questions. Standing face to face with the board of a FTSE 100 or 250 company is no mean feat, and our activists have not shied in the face of nerves, asking 88 questions so far this year, with over 100 planned in total.
That’s why AGM activism is so important: we continue to remind companies that we are watching and that we want them to accelerate their progress
We’ve asked questions on all of our campaigns this year, from addressing the gender pay gap in FTSE100 companies to encouraging retailers to limit their carbon emissions, sign up to electric vehicle initiatives and even reduce sugar in foods to combat child obesity. The experiences of our activists can vary, but here are accounts from some of our excellent AGM activists to give you a little more insight into the world of AGM activism:
“I’ve been to quite a few AGMs this year to ask companies questions relating to their gender pay gaps. The focus has generally been on companies with very high gender pay differences, with some paying females over 40% less than their male counterparts on a per hour basis. The response to these questions has been generally constructive. However, apart from putting more emphasis on diversity initiatives, few companies have been willing to make substantive commitments about reducing their gender pay gap. Although it’s important to recognise structural issues which mean that it may take some time to close the gender pay gap, my view is that it’s equally important that companies put meaningful targets in place to speed up the pace of change. That’s why AGM activism is so important: we continue to remind companies that we are watching and that we want them to accelerate their progress.”
Kevin Chuah, seasoned activist
“AGM activism is a unique chance to have a direct line to some of the most powerful people in business. Whilst some forms of activism are distinctly unwelcome, boards are generally very receptive to my questions. After all, many AGMs are dominated by loyal but dissatisfied customers who think nothing of asking the CEO about their supermarket loyalty points or the thickness of the toast on their latest cruise, so to have a substantive question from us to get their teeth into is probably a welcome relief! My questions this season have been about gender equality and decarbonisation, highly topical issues which companies need reminding are not just worth addressing for ethical reasons but also because it is good for the long-term health of their business. From a personal perspective it has been fascinating to see behind the curtain of a world I was only dimly aware of and I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”
Gabriel, frequent AGM activist
Our pension savings are invested in the shares of companies which make up the world we interact with every day. They build the world around us with our money, so we have a right to be heard
“It’s not everyday you get to confront the most powerful people at one of the world’s biggest food companies. So when ShareAction asked me to represent them at Just Eat’s AGM, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I swotted up on Just Eat’s annual report before carefully crafting my question about the health of their products around their financial incentives. I have to admit it was a nerve-wracking experience but what an incredible thrill! The CEO gave a thorough answer to my question and chatted with me afterwards; introducing me to a member of his CSR team, exchanging contact details to set up a meeting and even taking a selfie with me for ShareAction’s Instagram. I left hopeful that this could make a real difference to the way this company operates. I look forward to seeing Just Eat’s willing engagement turned into meaningful action over the coming months. Thank you, ShareAction for giving me the chance to throw down the gauntlet to people in power.”
Fran, new AGM activist
If you’re feeling inspired by our 2019 AGM activists, get in touch! Our pension savings are invested in the shares of companies whose AGMs we go to and who make up the world we interact with every day. They build the world around us with our money, so we have a right to be heard. What kind of world do you want your pension to build?
Thanks Jo! To learn more about our AGM activism work, click here.