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Activist Ralph Nader wants you to get paid

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader at Boston University (Getty)

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader at Boston University (Getty)

Green activist and consumer campaigner Ralph Nader wants to raise an army to oppose high corporate pay, and he wants you to be a part of it.

Ralph Nader is something of an icon in the United States. His book, Unsafe At Any Speed, was published in 1965 and launched a movement to bring safety standards to cars.

He later played a key role in passing major clean air and clean water regulations. Most notoriously, he ran for US president as a third-party candidate the year Al Gore lost to George W Bush. (Still-bitter US politicos say he cost Gore the election.)

Now, Nader, a lifelong disruptor and five-time candidate for US president, is founding a citizen’s movement to restrain the power of multinationals to accrue money only to themselves. In the crosshairs first: executive pay and stockpiles of cash he says companies ought to be returning to shareholders.

Nader's speciality has been building movements to push governmental change. His recent efforts to bring corporate governance to the forefront of public debate are no different. A perennial irritant to corporate lawyers, Nader is bringing his own particular tactics to bear, including targeting particular companies. In this interview with BBC Capital, he pointed to companies including Google and Monsanto, both of which did not respond to requests for comment.

Whether or not he succeeds, he has picked up on what may be a sea change in society. Investors and consumers alike are paying more attention to the behaviour of multinationals and voting with their investments. Institutional shareholders, such as Norway's $810bn oil fund, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, are increasingly being forced to take ethics into account in their investing decisions. In the United States, $3.74 trillion was invested in socially responsible strategies in 2012, up from $3.07 trillion in 2010, according to the Washington, DC-based Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

Nader launched his shareholder rights efforts a few years ago, when he noticed that Cisco has $45 billion in liquid assets. He decided the money ought to be turned back to shareholders, so he called for a so-called Penny Brigade, asking shareholders to donate one cent for every share they owned to start a watchdog group focused on Cisco. The group wasn't formed — but Cisco later started start paying a dividend of 3.1%. BBC Capital spoke to Nader about his latest crusade. Edited excerpts follow.

BBC CAPITAL: This year, you've taken steps to get the Penny Brigade idea off the ground. You want 15 to 20 advocates for good company behaviour to provide setting-up costs for a watchdog foundation, right? You have personally pledged 1% of your net worth, or roughly $50,000, in each of the next three years. What are your next steps?

NADER: We want shareholders to pledge one penny per share of stock they own — to raise an army of 500 people, one for each company in the S&P 500.

We have three issues of broad agreement: one is restraint on executive compensation greed, one is dividend policy and one is disclosure. Executive compensation policies give the top bosses incentive to engage in funny accounting, so they pump up the stock prices. Think about it: I, the CEO, and my predecessor have picked our board. We wine them, we dine them, we give them terrific per diem. Then we ask them to set our corporate package.

I'm going to be writing a letter to about 15 people, including Arthur Levitt (former Securities and Exchange Committee chairman), Robert AG Monks, (activist and founder of the global consultancy Institutional Shareholder Services), and John Bogle (founder of the Vanguard Group, the world's largest mutual fund company) and some leading lawyers in the area who have won class action lawsuits. We want to raise $10 million to start.

BBC CAPITAL: Which corporations are on your list to take on?

NADER: Arguably the most dangerous corporation in the world is Monsanto. Its entire goal is to codify the genetics of humans, flora fauna ... and to change the nature of nature. It's doing it without any legal or ethical framework. There's virtually no regulation. Their impact is eroding the self-reliance of farmers ... it's corrupting government and regulatory agencies such as those in India. It's atrophying academic science with corporate science that is not peer-reviewed and the evidence for which is not available. [Monsanto did not respond to two calls for comment]

BBC CAPITAL: Who are the emerging leaders in this corporate responsibility movement?

NADER: Jamie Love [director of Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO with offices in Washington, DC and Geneva that focuses on using intellectual capital in the public interest). He convinced the ministers of health in India to bring the cost down for drugs for AIDS patients down to $300 a year

Another would be Maude Barlow, who started the Council of Canadians (a citizen’s advocacy organisation). She's a big fighter against trade pacts and has a post at the UN.

BBC CAPITAL: What do you suggest that individual shareholders do?

NADER: There are how-to-file-a-shareholder-resolution web sites. You can file one, or a few. That's one entry point. Another entry point is just to write a letter to the CEO and then copy a lot of people. You could write a letter and say, when are you going to start paying dividends? Google doesn't [pay a dividend].

BBC CAPITAL: Some people think Google is one of the good guys. 

NADER: No more. Their motto was ‘do no evil’. But they are a true menace in terms of privacy. ... They don't know when to stop. They're so aggressively pursuing more sales and market share that by definition they don't know boundaries. [Google did not respond to a call for comment.]

BBC CAPITAL: You've said that the end result of your activism will be that companies will behave more responsibly. But isn't there a trade-off here? Aren't you worried that holding companies to higher standards especially in emerging markets will slow economic development?

NADER: Just the reverse. Corporations are not delivering a standard of living to billions of people commensurate with the people's economic and political power. When there's a gap between their power and their responsibility to deliver, that's the way you want to measure them. That's a yardstick they cannot deny.

You have a Wal-Mart mentality here that does not augur for the kind of distribution of wealth that promotes economic growth. That's even before we talk about the environmental responsibilities of corporations.

Corporations taken together are pursuing a homicidal course for the planet. ...  They don't know how to stop themselves.

BBC CAPITAL: Homicidal corporations? You are on the extreme.

NADER: Everything I've ever written is an understatement. Go back and look at Unsafe At Any Speed. We never could get anything more than the tip of the iceberg. That's all you can ever get. We just follow the evidence. It's pretty overwhelming.

This story has been corrected to remove the statement that Oracle does not pay a dividend. The company does pay a dividend.

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