If you segment ‘the history of the modern environment movement’ over the last 45 years, (seen through the lens of my governance triangle – see below), there would be three main stages.

The first stage was mostly about national governments instigating a massive roll out of environmental regulation, urged on by high-profile, confrontational NGO campaigns. There was mighty little business involvement.

The next ten years was mostly about big international treaties, growing business leadership, and highly diversified NGO activity, from direct action through to full partnerships with big multinationals.

Over the last ten years, we’ve seen governments stepping back, trusting more and more in market forces and less and less in the benefits of regulation – or what is now routinely referred to us ‘command and control regulation’. This position has been reinforced by the apparent readiness of more and more companies to do much of the heavy lifting on both social and environmental issues, going way beyond the minimum regulatory standards.

So where do you think that governance balance will be by the early 2020s? These are the paragraphs on that very theme that I might well have included in The World We Made, looking back from 2022. That just happens to be 50 years on from the first UN Conference on the Environment and Human Development in Stockholm, which prefigured the first wave of decisive environmental legislation and regulation.

“June 2022

It took everyone a long time to understand just how completely governments had lost the plot in the first decade of this century. 25 years of the crudest neo-liberal ideology had profoundly corrupted the body politic. It went a bit like this:

‘If it moves, privatise it, marketise it, monetise it. Shrink the size of the State at all costs. Use our good friends in the media to demonise taxation, and then move to minimise the burden of taxation on both wealthy individuals and companies. Constantly tell people that in such a complex, interconnected world, the State can do less and less, apart from maintain our Armed Forces and security services. Regulation should always be seen as ‘the policy instrument of last resort’, a wretched constraint on wealth-creators and the free market.’

And the sad truth is that this meta-messaging worked – at exactly the time when governments were needed more than ever before to address the emerging crises of climate change, grotesque inequality, resource shortages, competing land uses and so on. Historians have referred to this as ‘the tragedy of the lost generation’, with a whole generation of politicians effectively going AWOL when they were most needed on parade.

Until about 2015, businesses more or less went along with this ideological folly, with lots of business leaders still whingeing on about the burden of red tape and regulation. Even those companies that were doing a cracking job on sustainability were prone to rather pathetic spasms of deregulatory over-excitement.

But the calamitous failure of governments at the Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015 finally shocked business leaders into realising that however brilliant the achievement of individual companies might have been, the whole corporate sustainability agenda was doomed to inevitable and total failure if it was seen as a substitute for decisive, effective, sustained government regulation.

From that point on, in a way that no-one had imagined possible, progressive companies joined forces with international NGOs to force governments back into the business of legislating for change through proper regulation, taxation and incentivisation.”

So which bit of that do you think is crazy? It’s already crystal clear that governments will have nothing to offer in Paris next year which will be commensurate with the challenge of accelerating climate change. It’s already clear that progressive businesses are seriously worried about this. And it’s clear that such companies are already thinking through how best to use their influence to get governments to step up to the plate.

Which is why I was so pleased to get early sight of the new DoShorts book from Paul Monaghan and Philip Monaghan, Lobbying for Good. It’s the first analysis I’ve seen of the growing readiness of companies to engage strategically with public policy – and lobby hard for positive change.

It includes a host of great case studies, including Unilever and Ikea (who are both right out there on many different fronts), the Co-Operative (in its support for community energy), Aviva (through the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition), Maersk Line (through the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, a Forum project which couldn’t have succeeded without them), and Alliance Boots. The two Monaghans are seasoned campaigners, so there’s blissfully little pro-corporate guff:

“Lobbying for Good and its authors are not arguing that the glass is half full – the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope still wield far too much negative influence. But we are suggesting that there is a small and growing group of companies and business associations that have come to the conclusion that public policy intervention is an essential component of the transition to a more sustainable economy. We see this not only as a positive development, but as an absolute requirement for the world to have a cat in hell’s chance of reinvigorating serious progress on issues such as climate change and trade justice. Moreover, we believe that most NGOs have reached the same conclusion as well.”

Spot on! In my opinion, we hear far too much these days about what companies can do to influence consumers through their brands, and nothing like enough about what companies can do to influence governments through their lobbying and public advocacy. We should be focussed at least as much on people as citizens as on people as consumers – never forgetting for a single moment that it’s that same ‘crude neo-liberal ideology’ that has so successfully ‘marketised’ citizens by turning them into infinitely more malleable, manipulatable consumers.

All of which makes it a very exciting time to be talking about what a revolution in corporate behaviour really means – as I shall be reminding people at Forum for the Future and The Crowd’s ever-so-enticing event on 9th June!

Paul Monaghan and Philip Monaghan   Lobbying for Good: How Business Advocacy Can Accelerate the Delivery of a Sustainable Economy