In Great Britain the churches have the authority to invest their own funds in financial markets and can therefore act as shareholders. ECCR (Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsability) unites some churches as well as individuals with the objective of influencing social and environmental policies of companies. Powerful Shell has already felt the results of ECCR mobilisation on its oil wells in Nigeria
12 / 2001
How can the Churches in the UK have an effect on a social or political context? By playing the part of a responsible shareholder: that means challenging company Boards by asking for audits on efforts undertaken in the field of sustainable development, on an economic level, for society and the environment. British law allows Churches and communities to invest their funds on the stock exchange which means they can take part in the General Assembly.
That’s what ECCR did in 1996 at the General Assembly of the shareholders of the Shell petrol company. Since 1994, members of ECCR (currently 75 individual members and associations, many of whom are congregations and church commissions or even religious schools) have been informed by a video produced by an environmental NGO of the conditions in which Shell drills for oil in Nigeria - damaging the local population: oil pipelines in a bad state of repair, gas leaks... conditions very different from oil wells or rigs in Europe.
An intervention at the General Assembly in 1995 was the first direct contact between the association and Shell. Members of ECCR, shareholders in the company, confronted the directors who didn’t want to know anything about it. One member of the Board came, however, to discuss the matter afterwards and dialogue occurred. ECCR collected information on Shell’s activities in Nigeria, questioning Shell itself as well as inquiring of local churches in Nigeria. Information coming directly from the company showed that they were willing to communicate and to supply offcial figures, whilst the local churches supplied information from outside the company, but closer to the situatuation on the ground for which Shell was being incriminated.
In 1996 ECCR succeeded in putting on the agenda of the General Assembly a motion proposing that Shell be obliged to observe the same rules for applying environmental standards in all countries where it had drilling concessions. Prerequisite for that was the collection of signatures of 100 shareholders supporting the motion, the average share per signatory being a minimum of 100 pounds sterling. To do that, one had to go through the list of more than 1 million shareholders to find the churches, congregations and even village communities who could meet the minimum requirements. Then, collect as many proxies as possible in order to give the vote maximum weighting.
The result was surprising. Very often abstentions carry the day with 6-7 per cent of the vote, whereas here the proposal achieved 17 per cent of votes in favour. Shell committed itself to carrying out a more progressive policy, and dialogue between the management and ECCR developed to include Cameroun. The success was notable but didn’t go so far as to cause a complete turnaround of company policy across the board. The vote achieved by ECCR didn’t make front page news. However ECCR notes greater awareness of information which the Council produces on the part of traditional shareholders of the companies in question.
ECCR was created in 1989 via a group of company chaplains (not compulsory but quite a common practice in Great Britain, in established companies as well as in new companies such as Intel). These chaplains were concerned about the impact on sustainable development caused by activities of the companies they worked in. Moreover the churches have always invested an enormous amount of money on the stock exchange, and therefore it was only natural to require social, ethical and moral accountability for the sums invested.
The positive outcome of ECCR’s campaign against Shell make the organisation a lobby of some influence. Some members of ECCR deliberately invest in companies in order to have access to their financial results and to their General Assembly, especially if one suspects malpractice in that particular company according to the Council’s criteria ( no investments in activities diametrically opposed to the Council’s objectives, such as weapons manufacture for example).
Since the 1996 vote, the ECCR has carried out further investigations, particularly into British Petroleum. But the question still remains - how to monitor the verbal agreements undertaken by Shell? Once again the network of local churches in Nigeria comes into play. In October 2001, 3 members of ECCR visited the Nigerian churches in order to take stock of whether progress has been made or not by Shell. At this point in time we don’t yet know the results of the visit.
Is it possible to copy such actions in other national contexts?
It is interesting to note the will of members of the association to equate their moral and spiritual values with actions in civil society, even going so far as to act on behalf of the churches. But this christian activism tackling the financial markets is only possible because of the legal capacity of religious communities to invest on the stock exchange, which is not the case in many countries such as France for example. One could go further and ask whether it isn’t time to set up an actual lobby group with a christian label?
Suzanne Ismail, researcher for ECCR. PO Box 4317, Bishop’s Stortford, CM22 7GZ United Kingdom - Tel : +44 (0) 1279 718274 - Fax: +44 (0) 1279 718097 - www.eccr.org.uk.
English translation from french.
This file was made in an interview at the World Assembly, Lille, France, dec.2001.
Interview with ISMAIL, Suzanne