By José Carlos Marques.
Despite their key role in both national and international affairs, business associations remain strangely absent from academic discourse, teaching and research on corporate responsibility and sustainability. We clearly need to pay more attention to business associations.
The prominence of business associations
Business associations play an important role in promoting corporate responsibility and sustainability. One need to look no further than the events of recent weeks for evidence of their prominence and influence. At the UN summit in Katowice, Poland, national institutional investor associations – representing some of the planet’s largest asset managers, pension funds, and insurers – sent a clear message to the world’s governments: we need to end fossil fuel subsidies and introduce substantial carbon taxes if we want to avoid both environmental and financial calamity [i].
Recent headlines also point to how business associations may work to inhibit progress. Just before the UN summit began welcoming delegates, a number of fossil fuel trade associations, led by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, were busy lobbying the U.S. government. Their objective? Ensure that the U.S. Senate and Congress kill any hopes of reviving the federal tax credit for electric vehicles (EVs). That’s the same EV credit that helped Tesla grow its market share in the U.S. and is similar to programs that boosted EV usage in numerous other countries [ii]. While the credit program is a tiny fraction of what the fossil fuel industry receives in subsidies, it represents an obvious threat [iii].
Ensure that the U.S. Senate and Congress kill any hopes of reviving the federal tax credit for electric vehicles.
These are just some of the more visible examples of the considerable influence exercised by business associations. Countless other business associations lobby governments, develop self-regulatory programs and engage in a variety of activities that both advance and impede progress on a variety of key social and environmental issues including human rights, labor rights, climate change and inequality. Some have become highly prominent and visible in international circles – take the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
What is a business association?
Business associations are membership organizations composed of, funded, and governed, by firms with shared interests. They represent and defend the interests of their organizational members to outside parties and frequently offer services to their membership base (Schmitter & Streeck, 1999; Lanzalaco, 2008; Barnett, 2013). Associative action is distinct from other forms of business collective action such as alliances, business groups, networks and multi-stakeholder initiatives. It is also one of the most common forms of inter-organizational business activity. There are thousands in the U.S. alone. Every industry and sub-industry has one or several associations and most companies are members of one or several associations – a trade or industry association, a chamber of commerce, an employers’ association, a sustainability coalition, a lobby group, an economic club, etc.
The peril and promise of business associations
As the examples in the introduction illustrate, collective action via business associations can serve multiple ends. In some cases, they operate as special interest groups and rent-seekers whose narrow, self-serving objectives benefit only the industries or coalitions they represent… or even a small subset of member firms within the association. As such, business associations may stall or undermine sustainability efforts and capture regulators and legislators. In these cases, they are detrimental to society and must be countered and contained by markets, governments and social movements (“peril”).
In other cases, their interests are aligned with broader social goals, and as such, they serve as powerful, well-resourced advocates for mobilization and pro-social change. Under certain conditions, business associations may also exert normative pressure upon its membership, mediate member interests, and operate as effective self-regulatory institutions, resulting in beneficial social outcomes (“promise”).
The need for more research
The idea that companies who compete in the economic sphere can also collaborate to address social and environmental concerns has taken hold in both academic and practitioner circles. However, scholarship from various disciplines suggests that achieving the institutional conditions conducive to beneficial social outcomes is difficult and that more research on business associations, and the broader topic of collaboration amongst competitors, is required. Depending on the theoretical grounding and audience, the phenomenon is being addressed under a variety of labels: trade associations, green clubs, meta-organizations, pre-collaborative collaboration, coopetition and self-regulation. Clearly, there is a strong need and there are growing opportunities to address the prominence, peril and promise of business associations.
[i] Carrington, D. (2018, Dec 10). Tackle climate or face financial crash, say world’s biggest investors: UN summit urged to end all coal burning and introduce substantial taxes on emissions. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/10/tackle-climate-or-face-financial-crash-say-worlds-biggest-investors?CMP=share_btn_tw
[ii] Lambert, F. (2018, Nov20). Oil companies officially ask Republicans to kill effort to extend electric vehicle tax credit. electrek. Retrieved from https://electrek.co/2018/11/20/oil-companies-republicans-kill-electric-vehicle-tax-credit/
[iii] Nuccitelli, D. (2018, Jul 30). America spends over $20bn per year on fossil fuel subsidies. Abolish them. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/jul/30/america-spends-over-20bn-per-year-on-fossil-fuel-subsidies-abolish-them
José Carlos Marques is Assistant Professor, Strategy, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa, and Visiting Research Fellow (Governing Responsible Business) at the Copenhagen Business School. His research program, at the intersection of strategic management, sustainability and transnational governance, examines the drivers and organizational strategies of inter-organizational coalitions that address social and environmental challenges – these include business associations, multi-stakeholder initiatives and business-state interactions. His work has been published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Organization Studies, Journal of Business Ethics and Journal of World Business.
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