Experiments with Truth: Analysis

The promise of shareholder activism?

Recently, ExxonMobile made headline news for agreeing to shareholder requests for greater transparency regarding risks associated with its fossil fuel assets and shale gas activities. In late March, the company agreed to publish information about the risks that stricter limits on carbon emissions would have for its current portfolio and for future development of its deep-water oil reserves. This was quickly followed by a move to address growing concerns over the environmental impacts of fracking. In a major turnaround, ExxonMobile agreed to report how it manages risks associated with fracking such as those related to air quality and the use of water and chemicals. These concessions are the result of sustained mobilization by shareholder organizations including Arjuna Capital, a wealth management firm that focuses on sustainability, and As You Sow, an advocacy group for social corporate responsibility. Similarly, the electrical company, FirstEnergy recently agreed to release information about the effects of changing climate policy on its business model. These events signal that corporate actors increasingly view shareholder activist organizations as legitimate claims makers. It also points to new directions for social movement research.

For sometime now, scholars have recognized that social movements target a range of social actors beyond the state. Yet, social movement scholars have only just begun to examine mobilization aimed at corporate actors. To date, organization scholars have produced the bulk of the research on shareholder activism. While this work draws heavily on social movement theory, it contains only limited considerations of the dynamics between shareholder mobilizations and other social movement activities. The recent ExxonMobile example demonstrates the potential for collaboration between grassroots movements, such as the anti-fracking movement, and established shareholder activist organizations. Yet, Exxon’s response shows the limited nature of the potential outcomes from shareholder activism. The company refused to provide information about methane emissions from shale gas development and their reports are likely to contain information that is already publicly available.

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