by: Joel Makower

Here's a riddle: What has two faces and just one name?

The answer: Many large companies, at least when it comes to their corporate responsibility practices when compared to their lobbying efforts.

That’s the not-so-surprising conclusion of a report issued this week by WWF and SustainAbility, which ranked the world’s top 100 companies on the transparency of their lobbying activities. This is an often murky world in which corporate PR departments are known to portray their organizations as clean and green while their Gucci-shod lobbyists in Washington and other capital cities work behind closed doors to oppose the very same environmental and social policies being promoted.

According to Influencing Power, only about half of the leading multinationals are providing “some degree of transparency” around lobbying activity. And while the authors acknowledge that this is a clear improvement over the last five years, when “only a handful” of companies publicly revealed their lobbying efforts, a close read of the report suggests that even the best is not good enough.

The researchers found several worrisome examples of disjointed company practices, including those at BP (which is a signatory to the U.K. Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change but was alleged to have been lobbying in the US compulsory limits on carbon dioxide emissions), Ford and General Motors (which similarly both claim green leadership but lobby against efforts to control greenhouse gases), and GlaxoSmithKline (which is a major member of an industry association that is regularly criticized by HIV/AIDS experts for its lobbying on intellectual property rights), where government lobbying fly in the face of the companies’ public positions.

Perhaps ironically, all four of these companies -- along with BASF, Chevron, Dow, and HP -- were considered the highest-rated multinationals. This is progress?

No company reveals the amount it pays to professional lobbyists, although the amounts are staggering. In 2004 alone, the collective invoices of Washington lobbyists were likely to have exceeded $3 billion. In Europe an estimated 15,000 lobbyists represent a 60-90 million euro industry, but no comprehensive figures are available, since disclosure takes place only on a voluntary basis.

Can you say “Campaign finance reform”?

It’s not all bad news. According to the authors:

Our research has shown that significant numbers of companies have responded to the challenge from NGOs, investors and others to be more transparent with regard to lobbying activities. It seems that companies are developing a better understanding of the dimensions of this agenda that contribute to business risk, and how to manage these issues through greater transparency and consistency.

In the end, the report envisions a “third generation” of corporate lobbying that sees corporate responsibility “as a strategic differentiator and recognizes the potential for public policy to drive higher standards in support of business activities and wider social and environmental objectives.”

It’s a compelling vision, but the report makes it crystal clear that we’ve got a long way to go.

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