Companies hold Annual General Meetings (AGMs) for their shareholders to come together and hear how the previous year has gone, vote on company matters, and raise questions to the CEO and board. We use this opportunity to confront companies like Shell and Deliveroo with hard-hitting questions on major issues from worker conditions to climate change action and the ethnicity pay gap. Here’s a run down of how we did during 2023’s AGM season.
As the scale and urgency of environmental and societal problems grow, so does our drive to tackle these issues from the top
In record numbers, our AGM activists went face-to-face with the Boards of some of the biggest companies that shape the world that we live in. Using carefully crafted statements designed to encourage positive corporate behaviour change, we’ve teamed together to ask 116 questions to the leaders of 94 different companies - more AGM questions than we’ve ever asked before.
Our questions covered an expansive range of issues; we challenged companies on their approaches to pay in the cost-of-living crisis, diversity and inclusion, the financing of new oil and gas projects, decarbonisation in the chemicals sector, and accessibility and affordability of nutritious foods.
We asked 23 AGM questions outside of the UK – shareholder activism reached further than it ever has in the past. Challenging major European banks like Credit Suisse and UBS on their climate strategies and financing of fossil fuel projects received significant exposure in front of large audiences and media presence. For the first time ever, we used AGM activism to engage with corporations on our Biodiversity work and brought the topic of nature destruction, driven by pesticide use, to company Boards across the US and Europe. We kept the pressure on some of the most influential chemicals companies in Europe, like BASF and Solvay, arguing the strong moral and economic case for imminent decarbonisation.
Momentum around shareholder activism grew
Central to our AGM work at ShareAction is the belief that those impacted by the activities of companies – communities facing devastating impacts of the climate crisis, or workers struggling to make ends meet – should be entitled to attend an AGM and have their voices heard just as shareholders do. This is why we work with them to attend these AGMs and ask their questions directly. In platforming the voices of affected community representatives in the corporate space, and adding real-life perspective to company impact, we get closer to enabling such groups to take their rightful place as leaders in the movement towards positive social and environmental change.
This year, we saw community representatives challenge power generation business Drax regarding the damaging health effects of the company’s destructive sourcing practices on impoverished Black communities in the US. We also sought follow up from Barclays, UBS and Credit Suisse to asks made by indigenous activists impacted by fracking in the US and Mexico.
We witnessed other organisations making use of the AGM to push for change. Throughout 2023, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust asked UK supermarkets about the role their suppliers played in causing devasting pollution to the River Wye, Friends of the Earth challenged Unilever on their palm oil sourcing, and End our Cladding Scandal asked Aviva about the safety status of their leased buildings.
Jeanne Martin, ShareAction's Head of Banking Programme, at Barclays' AGM.
Accessibility and affordability of healthy foods was a vital topic at AGMs this year
We kept the pressure on global food giants like Nestle by travelling to their AGM in Switzerland and arguing the case for the prioritisation of healthy food sales. Activists challenged companies in the restaurant and fast-food sector for the first time in 2023, delivering such compelling arguments that we’ve since had positive follow-up engagements with businesses like Domino’s Pizza.
Learning from and collaborating with those with lived experience of the topic at hand is one of the most important aspects of our AGM work. Drawing from his experiences with food insecurity and poverty, Dominic, social-worker and founder of the #FoodisCare campaign, delivered hard-hitting testimonies to the boards of Unilever and Tesco. He asked how they, as food retailers yielding enormous profits, are taking responsibility to ensure that those hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis can access nutritious foods. His delivery of powerful, expertly written statements in the public setting of the AGM was critical in getting this topic on the corporate agenda, and represents the sheer potential for positive influence that shareholder activism can have.
Reflecting on his AGM experiences, Dominic explained that "ShareAction has been the vehicle for a council estate voice like mine to be heard by the leading food manufacturers at a time of crisis. I have been able to address boards about the lack of access to nutrition that the poor experience together with asking about the steps they are taking so that the already most disadvantaged families in society don't continue to experience food insecurity."
Dominic (left) at the Tesco AGM
As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, wages and workers’ rights were high on the AGM agenda
With financial pressures falling disproportionately on the lowest paid and those on insecure work contracts, we must keep pressure on companies to pay fair wages and provide decent employment contracts. In 2023, a dedicated cohort of AGM activists, workers, union members, and investors asked 32 different companies about their approach to the Living Wage and the Living Hours standard at a time of widespread financial hardship. Having since secured follow up meetings with 23 companies, our AGM activism work has been effective in prompting corporations to engage in discussions about how they support their workers through challenging times.
ShareAction joined forces with representatives from trade union Unite, amplifying the voices of hotel workers by asking Whitbread to pay its staff a real Living Wage. ShareAction also worked alongside trade union the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and co-ordinated questions on pay and poor working conditions at Deliveroo. This AGM saw Deliveroo riders share hard-hitting testimonies with the gig-economy giant, speaking of frequent risks faced at work and serious consequences this has on mental health; challenging the company to fix its damaging practices.
Protesters at the Deliveroo AGM
In encouraging companies to report the Ethnicity Pay Gap, we prompted corporations to start prioritising Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Along with a steering group of minority-led partner organisations and trade unions, ShareAction and AGM activists continued to challenge the biggest financial institutions to report on and reduce their ethnicity pay gap (the difference in the average pay of ethnic minority workers compared to white workers). In fact, in 2023 we went beyond financial institutions and extended the ask to food product and service companies, given the disproportionate number of minority workers on low wages in this sector.
In conjunction with ShareAction’s recently published ethnicity pay gap toolkit, stakeholders are also starting to expect more transparency and best practice from corporates; the potential for inspiring companies to make progress in reporting and reducing their ethnicity pay gap is notable. When reflecting on their experience attending Mitie’s AGM to do just this, one activist commented that it was an eye-opening experience which reinforced their belief in the importance of voluntary reporting to drive positive social change.
This sentiment was echoed by many of our inspiring supporters who asked questions at AGMs this year. George, Movement Builder (Black Majority Churches) at JustMoney, commented that attending Tate & Lyle’s AGM was an eye-opening event which created the opportunity to address ethnic inequalities and other ethical issues head-on with corporate decision-makers. Other activists spoke of the power behind attending AGMs to get a ‘foot in the door’ in their engagement trajectory and secure future dialogue with a company, and therefore the potential that the AGM holds for inspiring positive change down the line.
Looking ahead to 2024
It’s a critical moment for influencing corporate progress; we’re determined to ramp up the pressure and continue our engagement with those holding the decision-making power to affect real change. We have already begun looking ahead to next year’s AGM season and how we’ll hold companies accountable for their responsibilities on issues ranging from biodiversity loss and the climate crisis to deteriorating public health.
Our work would not be possible without the dedication of our inspiring network of supporters, with whom we look forward to collaborating further in pushing companies to do better. If you’re interested in getting involved or simply want to find out more, please get in touch with Senior Campaigns Officer Bethany at firstname.lastname@example.org.