Sustainable corporate governance has been defined as corporate governance that ensures corporations are run in such a way that they are sustainable over the long term. Note that for corporations to be sustainable in the long run, they need to ensure the preservation, as well as possibly the enhancement, of their ecosystem. This not only includes establishing and maintaining good relations with their shareholders and stakeholders but also preserving their environment. Here, the term environment should be understood as taking on a broader meaning. Indeed, corporations preserving their environment should not be reduced to mere environmentalism but they should also operate in harmony with the broader economic and social system. Put differently, sustainable corporate governance should also ensure that corporations are run in such a way to avoid future crises, such as the Great Recession. This would require a move away from business models that focus on short-term shareholder value while endangering the survival of the corporation over the long term.
Whereas much of the existing literature suggests that corporations should merely maximize shareholder value and that a stakeholder approach will result in vague and often contradictory objectives for the management, long-term shareholder value creation is nevertheless compatible with the corporation looking after the interests of its immediate, as well as possibly more remote, stakeholders. Ultimately, sustainable business practices will not only benefit the corporation’s employees, customers, and the broader society but also its owners.
The key question that arises is whether there is a link between various types of owners and sustainable corporate governance. A number of related questions emerge. What different types of owners are there and how influential are they in putting their stamp on how their investee firms are managed? Attempting to answer these questions requires revisiting the premise of the principal-agent theory that owners are typically disinterested from engaging with their investee firms. The main critique of this premise is that, even within the Anglo-Saxon corporate governance system, firms tend to have block holders, and there exist activist shareholders. Further, since the 1980s there has been an emergence—as well as an increase in the prevalence—of activist shareholders. Are some types of owners or shareholders more likely to enhance and maintain sustainability than others?
A review of extant evidence on the effects of various types of shareholders on long-term financial and non-financial goals suggests the following. While some types of owners are found to promote and support sustainable corporate governance, the effect of other types is less clear or even negative. This difference in effects could be due to three reasons. First, context, including the national setting, is important. Second, some types of investors, such as sovereign wealth funds, show great diversity in their characteristics and objectives. Finally, the goalposts are shifting with an increasing number of investors embracing corporate social responsibility and environmental, social, and governance issues. Importantly, given the increasingly visible consequences of global warming and societal unrest caused by a worsening of wealth inequality, the transition to a more sustainable society should not merely be the responsibility of corporate owners. Others, including corporate executives and business schools, are key to achieving this transition.