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Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

Something has been bugging me for a while now. It’s not a new issue but something that has been slapping me on the head daily for the last few months more than it has done in the past. Maybe it is the continued economic struggles the world is going through. Maybe it is the Occupy movement. Or maybe it is just me in desperate need of a vacation on my dream island of Kauai. Whatever the reason might be… The question I ask myself is whether we working in sustainability/CSR/Shared Value (or whatever you call it) are dealing with the fundamental challenges the world face today or are we just working on some of the symptoms and applying band-aid to a sickness that needs much more than what we have to offer?

I don’t question that we are doing the right thing for the right reason. We are trying to make this world a little bit more sustainable. We are trying to make companies be more responsible as good citizens of this world. We are trying to prove that good business can be done by doing good. That capitalism with a heart is possible. That money can be made by sharing value with society. That business has a social purpose that it should embrace. Yes, we are doing good work and we are making a difference. But is it enough?

The world is consuming at levels that are unsustainable. We cannot consume the way we have in the past and expect everything to be okay. But the economic system that we live and survive on is based on more consumption. Consumption of products. Consumption of credit. Consumption of energy. More and more of each and everything.

We’ve seen where this has got us so far. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s been like a frog being boiled. It’s been a slow squeeze on the middle class and the working class over decades. When the system started running into problems we the people adapted and everyone started to work to pay the bills and buy those things we need – and those things we want. But income didn’t keep up. And slowly the world got into more debt to stay afloat. And then the bubble when kaboom.

The same is true of the environment. We consume so much more crap food, in the West especially, that farming had to change from providing us with food to providing us with GM foods, hormone injected meat, fields of corn for sugar and cereal and everything you can think of, and so much more crap. All because we wanted more and more of this crap food to feed our greed and insecurities. And we manufactured in ways and drove our cars without knowing that slowly but surely we are choking the world and messing with the climate.

And so it goes on. We know how we got here. We got here because we believed we needed things when we really just wanted it. And lines got blurred more and more between need and want. Between necessity and luxury. We consumed and we consumed and we consumed. It worked for a long time. It fed us and made us wealthy – or some of us. And we got addicted to it. Growth, growth, growth. The bigger the better – in what we have and how we looked. We consumed ourselves to a standstill.

But the “system” cannot live any other way. How do we get out of the economic slump? We’re told by consuming more. A key moment for me was when then President  Bush said right after 9/11 that people should go and shop and go on with their daily lives as if nothing happened. Well, something did happen. The same is going on right now. The world is suffering on a societal and environmental perspective. The world is a very different place from 3 or 4 years ago. But we’re told we need to consumer more to get us out this slump.

I always tell my kids and my clients that we can’t expect different outcomes by doing the same thing. The same is so true for us right now. We can’t go on the way we have and expect the outcome to be different. We cannot consume the way we have and expect a different outcome. We cannot do business the way we have and expect a different outcome. We as humans know this when we hit our heads against a wall – we stop doing it and go around the corner. We’re not stupid. Or are we?

So what does this have to do with sustainability? Well, we’re still telling people to consume. Yes, we are telling them “buy this product because it is so much more sustainable”. Energy? We’re not asking people to cut down on their use but rather to use renewable energy. Okay, sometimes we ask them to use less energy but not really to buy less energy using products. Do you really need so many televisions? Do you really need 2-4 cars? Do you really need a house that large? Do you really need spend so much money during Black Friday? No one is advertising asking people to please not buy so much of their products this coming festive season. Very nice of Patagonia to say they want people to buy less but we know they aren’t really saying that they need to grow a little bit less. Or not at all. They still want to grow but hoping that people will buy the slightly more expensive and sustainable product or buy the Patagonia product instead of buying from a competitor.

We in sustainability and CSR are making the world a better place. I don’t doubt that for a moment. If every company does what we in sustainability and CSR want them to do then we will be in a much, much better place. But are we dealing with the underlying weakness of the system or are we delaying the hurt to the next slump? Put it this way. Would the world be in a better economic place if every single product is made in the most responsible way possible? I don’t know - but I think we would’ve been heading to the same problem if we didn’t address the underlying addiction to consumption and growth.

That is really the 3 pillars of sustainability – product, profits and purchase.

Product – how the product is made. Make it as sustainable as possible. Make it by using renewable energy, sustainable sourcing, manufacturing without exploitation etc. Make it the best we can. And make the impact on society and the environment as light as possible.

Profits – do your business to make a profit. No business can live without it. It is at the heart of business. But don’t confuse profits with growth. We’ve become addicted to growth because of the shift in investors from long-term to micr0-term. Not even short-term anymore. That would require a day or a week or two. The majority of investors of today don’t give a damn about the company and what it makes – only about the return they can get in the next 5 minutes, or seconds. And they are holding businesses ransom. We saw this during this recession. Profitable companies laid off workers. How is that for commitment? They didn’t say “we’re struggling on the growth front but still profitable – so we’re going to knuckle down and work, work, work to get out if it but won’t let our people go as long as we are profitable.” No, they let people go because the micro-term investor demanded it. Puh-lease don’t talk to me again about your employees being your greatest asset. Your don’t sell the crown jewels with the first sign of a bit of a struggle.

Purchase – people need to buy your stuff for you to be profitable. But the reality is that we also need to get people to buy less stuff. This is at the heart of the challenge to business. How do you make stuff and sell stuff but make sure people buy less stuff. Guess what… I don’t know.

There is another “P’s” we have to address within the system as well to make the world truly sustainable. Parity…

Parity – we can’t live in a world where so few has so much and so many has so little. It is not sustainable. It. Is. Not. Sustainable. Get it? The gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners are just too wide. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is unacceptable. The gap between the pay of the executive and the lowest paid workers is not good for the company or society. No one is asking for 100% equality in pay. But the gap is just too damn wide. It is greed and nothing more. Any reason given is just snake oil. It is not just and not right. And more importantly, it is not good for business and it is not good for capitalism.

But it goes further than that. The West cannot consume the way they have and allow the rest of the world to slowly die. We live in a global world. The West is the 1% and Africa is the 99%. It is not sustainable. It is capitalism gone bad. It is the dark underbelly of greed. It must stop.

So until then we in sustainability are using band-aid to deal with a much more serious disease - unless we start seriously dealing with all 4 of these P’s – Product, Profits, Purchase and Parity. The challenge is we can’t do this on our own. We need to widen our circle because this means we need to forge new partnerships outside of business to get this right. But that discussion is for another day.

Now I need to get to Kauai to consume some sun.

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I wasn’t planning on writing a blog today but this piece in my favorite newspaper, The Guardian (yes, I am the typical lefty reader), made me roll my eyes. The piece is very well intended and generally pretty good advice for charities – Charity funding: How to approach business for help.

I agree that charities or NGOs should be more strategic in their approach to businesses for help. But when I read about the need for NGOs to have more “business realism” in their approach I couldn’t but help think of the need for business to have some “activist realism” in their thinking. It’s easy to ask the other side to be more like you but how about you being a little bit more like the other side too? Like any relationship, it’s about give and take – not just take.

Too often business think that charities should support them more and be more of their “voice”. Sorry, that’s not how it works. It’s a partnership. If you want NGOs to be more of a voice  then you need to be more of a voice as well. No more hiding behind industry associations to do your dirty work or hide you from criticism on key challenges. If you want Greenpeace to slap you on the back instead of on the head then you need to speak up against other businesses who don’t act responsibly. You can’t expect a progressive NGO to support you if you also back regressive policies via another NGO or a business association or lobby group. Or if you keep quiet while other businesses lobby and push for, and argue against, positions held dearly by NGOs - climate change, clean energy, waste, pollution, labour conditions, conflict etc. NGOs expect you to share their world view and not only on one specific issue. This is the “activist realism” they live and work in. This is their “business”.

And how about business in general showing more social conscious? It’s fine to ask NGOs to be more business like but for some reason too many businesses argue that their focus is on the “business bottom line” only and that their only responsibility is towards shareholders. Bah to other stakeholders and society in general. Sounds like double standards to me.

Business needs “activist realism” to realise that their responsibility lies not only with shareholder but to this world they live and operate in. If you see your value as purely making more money for shareholders then you should expect flack from those who are not shareholders. They receive no benefit in their relationship with you except for some products they might or might not really need – so why should they care about your “realism”? Your “realism” might be in direct conflict with their real world. You pollute and they breathe it in. You accelerate climate change and they fry or freeze. You waste and they drown in the plastic bags. You pay peanuts to farmers and they get products that are second rated. You get the picture.

Some “activist realism” will hopefully make companies realize that they have a role to play as citizens of this world. That they have a responsibility towards others through their actions and words. That this responsibility is directly tied to their own long-term sustainability. You kill this world and you kill your business. Easy economics. “Activism realism” will make you sit up and say “no more”. Say it and do it because it is good for your business. Be an “activist” because your company needs to stand up for its own future – one that is tied to the well-being of society. Don’t huddle with those businesses and associations who do not share your world view. Do not care about shareholders who do not care about your business. Shareholder who only care about the next quarter and maximum profits come hell or high water do not care about your business. Only about how your business can line their pockets. They’ll drop you like a hot potato if a better offer comes up.

They are like a bad relationship. They promise you the world but they’ll drop you if someone with more money shows them some shiny object and promise them a better date. Would you take that from a date? Sucker if you will…

Show some “activist realism” by caring about your company’s future. Show some “activist realism” by speaking out against those who threaten your business in hard and soft ways. Show some “activism realist” by being serious about serious investors. Show some “activism realist” when you engage with your stakeholders. Show some “activist realism” when you give us a reason to believe in your worth to society.

Until then – you really don’t have much of a leg to stand on by asking NGOs to show more “business realism”. As my mom used to say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

That’s my “activist realism”. A world where business care about business as part of society and contributing to society. That’s the “business realism” I want to live in.

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I have been trying really hard. Really, really hard. You know. To be a treehugger. I think the whole concept of being a treehugger is really cool. You get to have the beard, the nice lean and muscled body, tanned and tough as nails. With my sunglasses and Bermuda shorts. Sandals and a knowing look in my eyes. Man. I am so cool. Me, the treehugger. But first, let me find a treehugging job…

The rebel of the forest. Defending the last natural old forests of our precious earth. These beautiful beasts whose breath gives us our precious clean air. The green jungles that hides the therapy for the soul and body. It’s there and we must protect it. And that’s what I do. I live in the forest. Patrolling every inch to make sure these wise old trees stay safe. Safe from the loggers. I am the phantom. I live in the trees at night and run like a tiger during the day. Stopping and smelling the air to see who is here. Who will feel the wrath of the rebel. But… Eww! What is that? What is that smell? It smells like something rotten – must be the dead carcasses. And those creepy crawlies! Worms and bugs all over the place. And the bloody ants crawl up my pants the whole time. And the food stink – fruits day in and day out. I need a BigMac now! And just water and water and water. If it isn’t drinking this foul stuff then it is raining and raining and raining. I now get why they call it the rainforest. It’s always bloody-well raining. Gotta get outta here. I need some fresh air, a warm bath, a beer and a braai (barbecue).

The activist of the seas. I can see myself. Standing at the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon for those whale-hunters. Now I am the hunter. Like a pirate of old. Ready. Just ready to take them down. They don’t know my rage. My fury. I am the king of the high seas. I have seen things on these seas of mine. Corpses of people. And corpses of animals. Those dead whales we try and save. But not anymore. Not on my watch. I will… Pthu! Bloody seawater sprays everywhere. Standing on the bow wasn’t such a good idea after all. The water sprays everywhere. Salty water in my mouth. My body feels sticky all the time. And all we get to eat is bloody fish and more fish. And crap desalinated water. The boat stinks man. Like dead fish and men who haven’t had a proper wash in months. My hair is a permanent mess. And my hands. My poor hands. Cut to pieces by working the lines and ship each day. Oh, man. It doesn’t help that I get seasick from watching fish-tanks either. Gotta get of this ship. Now! I need some clean linen, a warm bath, a beer and a braai.

Okay. So I can’t be an active treehugger. That’s fine. I’ll just be a greenie. I’ll just live green then…

It’s a good start. I use public transport. Okay, I don’t use it because of any green reasons. I am just too bloody lazy to drive to work myself. I have too short a temper to sit in the traffic all day. And I am too stingy to pay for parking and tolls. But still. It is a good start. Oh, wait. I also have a refillable mug for my daily Starbucks fix. I am saving a few rainforests that way. No cup for me. No sirree, Bob! Not for me. Except when I forget my cup at home. Or when I am too lazy to clean my cup for a refil. Still. It’s the idea that counts though. Doesn’t it?

My problem is that I want cool stuff. The jobs look cool. But it isn’t really. It’s only cool if people can see you do it. And there is no camera following me. Treehugging just isn’t cool enough for me. Me fighting global warming? No problem. Just make it a bit cooler dude. Global warming just isn’t that cool.

I mean really. The iPad is cool. A red Ferrari is cool. The Kinect is cool. So many companies make cool stuff. Not green stuff. But that’s cool. As long as it is cool dude. That’s the problem with treehugging. The stuff that make us want to hug trees just aren’t cool man. And at my age I need to have cool stuff. Because I am not cool enough by just my little older almost middle-aged self.

So gadgets don’t work for me trying to be cool and a greenie. Let’s try something else. Something that says cool and green in a big way.

Let’s buy a Prius! Okay, let’s not. The Prius is just not cool. It’s a lunchbox on wheels. An ugly lunchbox. Come on. The Dodge Challenger. Now that is cool. The Toyota FJ Cruiser. Now that is cool. I can see myself behind the wheel of a brand new red Challenger. Sunglasses and all. Revving the motor while eyeing the guy at the traffic lights. Ready to smell my tires dude? Bye-bye. Oh, and the surfboard on the roof of the FJ Cruiser as I sit on the bumper looking at the waves through my cool Ray-Ban glasses. Now that’s cool. The Prius? Nah. Not so cool. I’ll look like the man I am – on the older side of the surfer group. All I can fit into the Prius is my neat little suitcase and a clean shirt for work.

The problem is that most stuff that makes treehugging easier just isn’t cool. Oh, there is a few cool stuff out there. Wind-farms. That’s cool. Neat Apple-like designs. That’s way cool. One small problem though. I can’t carry it around with me to show it off. And you need to show it off if you want to be cool. Oh, and it will take up the whole bloody backyard. Kids won’t like that I think.

Global warming is even more difficult. I can’t point to it. I can’t go, “See, there it is. There are those damn CO2′s”. Just too little these things. These stupid little molecules. Wind-farm to big and CO2 too little. That just ain’t cool. That’s so way not cool.

But those kids of mine. I sometimes wonder. Just wonder how cool it will be when they grow up. Will it be too warm when they are my age? Might be a bit too warm for them. A little bit too warm to live? And that is so way not cool…

Maybe it is time for a change. Climate change. Now that is way cool!

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Can you remember the first time the two of you got together. The stolen looks, the uncomfortable moments of silence, the tripping over your sentences, the sweaty palms, the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not thoughts, the private meetings when no one was looking, the uncomfortable first meal together. Yes, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. Just as with any relationship in the early wooing and courting stage, stakeholder engagement is never easy at the start.

Most companies just don’t know how to talk to activists and campaigners. Hey, make no mistake, activist hardly knows how to talk to companies either. But they don’t need companies to like them as much as what companies need them to like them. Or at least leave them alone and not target them.

Don’t feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes not. I remember seeing an anarchist kicking a Nike sign at the battle of Seattle in ’99 – while wearing his Nike shoes and top…

But there are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage and start courting. This is not an exhaustive list. Just a few tips to get you through those first uncomfortable early stages of stakeholder dating.

Firstly, do your homework and find out a bit more about the NGO and what it regards as its ‘bottom line’ – it is unlikely to be financial! I was invited to speak to the global affairs team of a very large pharmaceutical while I was at Oxfam (I headed up the Access to Medicine Campaign for a while). I was shocked to hear that the majority of people at the company thought that Oxfam only worked on health issues. And this happened when Oxfam was in the middle of their Coffee Campaign! Dig around a bit first and find out what the NGO does and what is their mandate. Most of them are registered with a constitution that states what they should focus on and how they should work. This will help you understand whether there is any potential for a longer term constructive relationship – or just a one night stand. Also a good tip when you start dating – know who you are dating. Except if you like blind dates.

Secondly, respect the differences between NGOs by not lumping them all together in the same room for a consultation exercise – NGOs are proud and competitive too. You wouldn’t want them to call a whole bunch of companies together and still expect special treatment just aimed at you. You should respect their differences and treat each one differently. Rather meet each one separately in an environment that works best to put them at ease. Meet them where they feel most comfortable – maybe at their place. Especially if you want to build the foundation for a long-term relationship. And even this should work best for real dates – don’t bring all your prospective dates together in the same room. They might just start sizing each other and you will be left with no date at all.

Thirdly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the only company that is the target of the NGOs campaigning efforts, or that the NGO hasn’t other programs and projects that may have nothing to do with business. Just as with the large pharmaceutical company I mentioned, most NGOs have numerous focus areas and different programs and projects to try and achieve their overall goals. And most large campaigning NGOs have various campaigns going at the same time. They might have one single broad focus, but it plays out in different campaigns and programs. For instance, Greenpeace might be about the environment, but they focus on climate change, oceans, forests, genetic engineering and nuclear issues. So your company might only be a small part of their focus and interest. Same with real life dating. A friendly smile does not mean they want to date. It might just be a friendly smile.

Fourthly, start by talking, learning about each other and building trust rather than starting by expecting ground-breaking strategic partnerships. There might be a few obstacles to overcome – perceptions of what ‘big business’ is all about and a feeling that you want to ‘clean’ yourself by associating with them. Take it easy and just talk. Let them get to know you. Don’t create expectations. Just listen and learn and see where this might take you. Again a good tip for real life dating as well. Don’t ask them to marry you or expect ‘the commitment’ on the first date – it might just scare them off.

Lastly, remember that cash does not necessarily have the same currency as it does when buying products or services from other companies. First and foremost NGOs want to affect change. But they don’t always see money as the way to achieve change. Yes, some of them have huge budgets and operate like multinationals. But they generally have strict guidelines on receiving money from companies. For instance, Oxfam will not accept money from companies that fall within an industry they target in their campaigning. They might not even accept money for travel – never mind for a program. They would rather see you ‘do the right thing’ than pay them to do something. Okay, this one is less relevant for real life dating. Money generally impress prospective dates!

Okay, one more tip. Don’t expect them to agree with you on everything. And don’t make this a prerequisite for your potential relationship. I love my wife to bits. But we only agree 80% of the time. But we don’t let the 20% of the time we disagree define our relationship. No. Focus the relationship on what you have in common and don’t get stuck on the differences. It’s part of being human – we are all different. And the same for companies and NGOs – we are all different. And I learned that I am wrong 20% of the time in any case. Just ask my wife.

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I can’t help but be on the side of the unions fighting for their rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I am pro-union. And I am pro-business. I see no contradiction in this. As a South African (now working in the US) I saw how trade unions helped people and how they led the fight against injustice. And I saw first-hand how good companies partner with trade unions and how they believe in trade unions as much as the unions themselves. I am always fascinated by so many US businesses being anti-unions. It need not be like this.

For the next few days I will tell you about my own experience in becoming a trade unionist in South Africa. I always say I am an ex-unions. But I am not. You can never be an ex-unionist. I am with my brothers and sisters fighting for their rights and protecting those workers who need protection against exploitation. We need them and business need them – sustainable businesses that is…

One note: We unionist in South Africa call each other Comrade. Nothing to do with communism. Just part of the legacy of fighting Apartheid and fighting injustices. So here we go – the first part of my story as a trade unionist. Maybe you’ll understand why I support the unions – I am biase because of my experience. They were my home and made me fit into the new South Africa. I am forever grateful to all my Comrades and what they gave to me.

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I wasn’t born to be an activist or a trade unionist in South Africa. Quite the opposite, really. I was born to be the stereotypical ‘good, racist Afrikaner’ in Apartheid South Africa. My family supported Apartheid and all of them worked for the Apartheid regime at some stage in their lives.

My dad was a Brigadier in the South African Prison Services, and one of his last assignments was to look after political prisoners at Pollsmoor prison during the last few years of Apartheid. Both my sisters worked at the prison services and married guys who worked at the prison services. And my brother worked for the prison services on Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was jailed.

I grew up in a home that did everything the Apartheid government wanted us to do. We were part of the Dutch Reformed Church – the Apartheid government in prayer. We watched rugby – then the sport of the white Afrikaner. I went to school at Paarl Gymnasium – one of the best Apartheid schools in South Africa. I attended the University of Stellenbosch – the ‘brain trust’ of the Apartheid policies and politics. We read the Apartheid government approved newspapers and watched their TV. I benefited from the education they provided and the money they paid my dad. I was made for a life supporting and working for the Apartheid government.

Somewhere along the line things didn’t work out the way they planned. I became everything that Apartheid was against – an activist with a social conscience who loves being an ‘African’ on the global stage. Instead of being the man they wanted me to be, I became the man I wanted to be. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always been fun. But it always felt right. From Stellenbosch to Seattle, Mali to Monterrey, and Lusaka to London – no matter where the road took me, it always felt right, and it always felt as if I belonged.

That’s the beauty of life – you can be who and what you want to be no matter where you come from.

I got my big break – an interview with Gordon Young for a job as Developmental Economist / Researcher at the LRS (Labour Research Services). The LRS was the leading trade union support organization in South Africa. Well respected by overseas donors and at the center of policy making in the trade union movement. And it played a huge role in the anti-Apartheid movement during the struggle years.

Of course I knew nothing about all this when I got the call from Gordon Young. Hey, I applied for a job that was advertised in the wrong newspaper. And I was only a minor player in the anti-Apartheid movement at my university. How was I supposed to know who they were? I would have thought that it had something to do with taxes if someone mentioned the LRS to me.

But I managed to wing it at the interview. Gordon and myself did not hit it off straight away. I think that he thought I was a bit of a lightweight. He was right of course, but he also realized that I knew research methodology inside out. And that, combined with the lack of competition, got me through to the final round of interviews. With the LRS partner – NACTU – that I will be working with.

Again, I knew nothing of NACTU. Absolutely nothing. Thanks to my Apartheid education, I was never taught anything about trade unions in South Africa – not even at university. Never mind the smaller of the three trade union federations.

My initial research also let me down. I thought NACTU stood for the National Azanian Council of Trade Unions. It made sense. NACTU was closely aligned with the black consciousness movement and had close ties with organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) – two of the dominant black consciousness organizations in the fight against Apartheid. But I was wrong – although they were somewhat aligned with the PAC, NACTU stood for the National Council of Trade Unions. And their members had the freedom to choose who they wanted to support politically.

But I didn’t do that much research, thinking that I can wing it again as I did with Gordon. All I knew was that NACTU was a trade union federation and that the job would focus on supporting them with research.

Gordon told me I was to meet Cunningham in Johannesburg. If he liked me I would get the job as he would indirectly be my boss. Hey, they pay my salary – I just work for the LRS.

I started picturing Mr Cunningham. He sounded like a typical middle-aged white English guy – most likely from the ‘old country’ – England.

I got on the plane to Johannesburg from Cape Town to meet Mr Cunningham at the NACTU offices. Grabbed a taxi from the airport and off I went to Fox Street in the center of Jo’burg. I was shitting myself as I have only been to Jo’burg a few times, and the horror stories people told me sounded like something from Gotham City – muggings, car hijacking, stabbings etc. Not the place for a young white boy from a small town. But I made it to the NACTU offices in one piece.

As I entered the NACTU offices I immediately realized that I have never seen so many black people in one office. Everyone was black. It was a bit of a cultural shock – but a pleasant one. At last I found a place that looked like it represented South Africa. Anti-Apartheid slogans and pictures were posted all over the walls – clenched fists and all. I thought it was odd that a white middle-aged English guy would head up all of this, but this is South Africa and anything is possible.

So I sat around and waited for Mr Cunningham to come and call me for my interview. A tall, thin black guy in overalls walked past me and stopped. He looked back at me and said – ‘You must be Henk’. He came over and introduced himself. ‘Hi Comrade, I am Cunningham. Cunningham Ncgukana’. He wasn’t even middle-aged.

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Partnership anyone?

 

The oil spill seems to have more than just an environmental and political impact. It’s starting to impact how partnerships are formed between companies and NGOs. Some environmental NGOs are being tarnished - thanks to their relationship with BP. The Washington Post wrote an article about how the Nature Conservancy (and Conservation International and EDF) is facing a potential backlash because of their ties to BP. It has sparked a lively debate amongst Nature Conservancy members as the Nature Conservancy defended it’s position in a piece called “Why We Engage With the Energy Industry: It’s For Nature“. I’m less interested whether environmental NGOs should partner with energy companies as that is for each one to decide according to their principles and what they are trying to achieve in their own unique way. What I am interested in are the lessons we can take from the controversy – for NGOs and companies. 

Of course NGOs will have to be more discriminating when it comes to their partnerships. Or maybe a bit more transparent and proactive with their members on how they partner and who they partner with. The complaints from the Nature Conservancy members are legitimate but it is mostly because they just did not know about the Nature Conservancy and BP relationship. They based their support for the Nature Conservancy on what they thought the Nature Conservancy should do when it comes to partnering and not what the Nature Conservancy actually does. We live in an increasingly transparent world where no information is hidden anymore. That’s not to say that the Nature Conservancy (or any of the other NGOs) hid what they did. It was just not seen as a priority communication to members. Their argument will be that the information has always been there for anyone looking – or asking. 

However, the information overload in the world we live in also means that people can’t research all the facts – there are just too much information. What we’ve seen more and more is that people rely on their friends, blogs and other social media to get their information. They trust these sources – why would my friend lie? The problem is that none of these new sources of trusted information tend to have all the facts. Your friend tells you that the Nature Conservancy is cool because they have always supported them or they’ve read something that they liked etc. But the detail tend to be missing. The sources people trust do not always have all the details – just soundbites. It works most of the time as most things tend not to be such a huge issue. Until a major oil spill hits you… 

NGOs need to be more transparent on who they partner with, how they partner and why they partners. More importantly, they need to get to those places where people find their information – friends, blogs and social networks. It’s not enough to have a Facebook page or a nice blog telling people what you think and why they should support you. You should use these tools to engage not only new and potential members but also your existing members. Engage them and inform them of those areas you (and them) would see as potential risk areas – your corporate partnerships… Be open and transparent about who you are, what you do and who you work with. We ask companies to be transparent and proactive about these issues – and so should those who defend the rights of civil society and the environment. Go out and engage in a transparent and open way. The more people know the more likely you will have members who know what they are getting into and the more loyal they will be. It’s like any relationship - you want to know everything before making a commitment. Don’t be like so many who marry based on a gut feeling instead of digging deeper to see if you will really stick together in “sickness and in health.” 

People also make assumptions based on names. The Nature Conservancy. It’s about conserving nature, right? And the elevator speech tells me that. Most people don’t read further than that because the name and soundbites gave them what they think they were looking for. However, the devil is in the details – the fine print. Encourage supporters to be diligent in doing their research before the time. Give them a “Term & Conditions” document to “agree to” before they can become a member. Spell out what you do and who you do it with. The same way we want companies to tell us who they partner with. Don’t assume people will know what you do – they don’t. 

Don’t try to be everything for everyone. There are so many causes nowadays – I’ve written about this here. Competition amongst NGOs are growing as each one tries to carve out a bigger part of the “market share”. The number of NGOs are exploding because each individual is trying to match their “unique” view with a charity to match. It becomes increasingly difficult for large NGOs to attract new members. One way they try to address this is by becoming everything. You care about turtles? We’ve got just the right program for you. Oh, you like trees a bit more? Step right this way for your own huggable tree. 

You can’t be everything. Pick what you want to address and be the best at that. Less of a Jock of all trades – more a master of one. This way you know what you are and, more importantly, your members know exactly what you are and it’s easier for them to see what you do and how you do it – and who you do it with. Starbucks sells coffee not cars. Microsoft doesn’t sell houses. Timberland doesn’t drill for oil. They know who they are and what they are good at. I don’t have to guess what they do when I go and buy my coffee, software or boots. Furthermore, knowing who they are and what they offer makes it so much easier for me to dig around to see how they do what they do – the CSR and sustainability bits. And, of course, who they partner with. 

Lastly, some NGOs like Oxfam GB, WWF and Greenpeace have very strict rules that govern their behaviour and partnerships. I’ve worked for Oxfam GB and they don’t rule out partnerships with companies but have very strict guidelines. For example, they will not accept any funding from companies remotely linked to any issue or campaign they work on. It hasn’t always been a popular position but it made it easy and very clear on how you manage relationships and expectation – and engagement with supporters and companies. Oxfam GB can work with a company to help them on the ground as long as it helps them achieve their primary goals – addressing poverty – but no money can be exchanged. NGOs should be clear on this – when do or don’t you accept corporate cash or goods. I’m not saying that those being targeted because of the oil spill and their partnership with BP don’t, but it is clear from the concerns by members that the members did not know the rules. During my days at Oxfam we used to make that a key part of all communications – large public meetings with supporters or closed meetings with companies. Everyone knew the rules and had to live by those rules. Make it, know it and talk about it. 

Last point on how the oil spill could be redefining partnership… This time on the corporate side. 

Companies should also become more discriminating about their partnerships. The partner of your partner now becomes your partner. True progressive companies, or at least those who claim CSR and sustainability leadership, will have to become more careful who they pick as their NGO partner. Do you really want to partner with an organization that might be perceived as “sleeping with the enemy” because of other relationships they have? Their reputation is your reputation. It works beautifully when they can help tell your story but it can come back to haunt you if they become tainted. Pick your NGO partner carefully – using the same rules I mentioned above for NGOs. 

But progressive partnerships go further than your partnerships with NGOs. Who are you partnering with on the corporate side? It is becoming increasingly unacceptable to have a “lager” mentality where you can keep quiet about what other businesses are doing. Not every business out there is your friend just because they are a business. Think about it this way… 

Say you are dependent on milk from a very specific area for that unique cheese you have to offer. And then they find oil there. This could mean the end of your business or at least your competitive edge. Do you keep quiet or do you tackle the business that threatens your business? 

Let’s try another example… 

Let’s say that as a company you stand for the environment. Your brand is something that stands out in its advocacy for the environment. You might even be in the line of making clothes or boots for outdoor use. You champion this and you build your brand on your environmental credentials and progressive advocacy. What do you do when a mining company mines off the top of a mountain? Do you keep quiet because it is another business or do you speak out because it threatens your business or at least devalues your brand. 

The same goes for Climate Change. Why keep quiet if you truly believe that it can have a material impact on your business? Should you not defend your business interests and long-term survival? Should you not tackle those who threaten your business or who advocates against your interest? Why even closely associate yourself with businesses whose practices threatens your business? Just because they are a business? We don’t even do that as humans… 

Your partnerships and allies will be a key way to communicate what you stand for. Traditional business associations are becoming more irrelevant by the day – new broader stakeholder partnerships based on shared values are increasing. Why? Because people see who you are through the relationships that you have. Associate with businesses that are against what they believe in will make them question you. And threaten your business. The question for you – what does this mean for your business and how can you stay ahead of the pack? Redefine your partnerships with NGOs and other businesses. Find the right match and build on that. 

Partnerships are being redefined and you will either fall behind or you can be part of defining the new way of partnering. You decide.

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Don’t know if you’ve noticed the bit of oil in the Mexican Gulf. Bit of an issue for BP and the oil industry in general. I think enough is being said about the oil spill and the responsibility of companies by the experts – you really don’t need me to add another opinion to this. However, it does remind me that almost every company has an oil spill waiting to happen.

Every company has a big issue they face. Some have more than one. For the oil industry it is price, human rights, sourcing location and environmental impact. For the pharmaceutical industry it is price, intellectual property and access. For food companies – sourcing practices and obesity. Car manufacturers face safety issues. Clothing and show companies know that people are always looking at the working conditions in those far-flung places where their goods are made. Banks… Where do I start….

The point is that all companies will face these issues. It is driven by multiple factors – what is material to your company and what activists (NGO types or investors) highlight and where people want change in behaviour. What’s your biggest issue? Are you even aware of what it is?

There are other big issues that are less well-known within the broader public or even amongst activists. The skeletons in your cupboard. Most companies have these. Those issues you know you where are vulnerable but no one is looking at it at the moment. For instance, people focus on the working conditions in clothing and footwear. We are all aware of it and all responsible companies are trying to do something about it. But tell me, do you use leather? Few people know the way leather gets from cow to shoe. The tanning and dyeing are not something most people think about too much. It’s leather – how bad can it be? I’m lucky that I worked with the footwear unions and business in South Africa for a while. It gave me a bit of first-hand experience. Just go and have a look at how the huge quantities of leather needed for your shoes and clothes are tanned and then dyed. Not a pretty sight… But it’s out there in the middle of nowhere and no one of note campaigning on this. And maybe it isn’t even such a huge issue when looking at the broader impact of companies. But it’s out there – as visible as an oil spill for anyone looking.

It does not have to be the biggest impact – it just needs to be the most visible impact. You think the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf is the worst oil spill ever? Think again. It’s just the worst oil spill in the US and developed world. Oil spills happen daily – we just don’t see it every day because we can’t or don’t want to visit some of the places where our oil is secured from.

So the question for business to ask themselves is how far am I from a disaster hitting me? What is the disaster waiting to happen and will anyone notice? And what can I do now that makes sense. Companies can’t fight every potential disaster – No more than what the Average Joe can prevent every single thing that might go wrong in their day. Things happen no matter how much we try to prevent it. We plan and hope for the best. It is part of living. If we didn’t do that we will all stay at home and eat apples – too scared of being in a car crash, hit by a natural disaster or eat crap and die from obesity. Life is assessing the risks and doing what we think is best. Most of the time it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s life. But we better be prepared to face life with careful planning and open eyes.

It’s not that companies aren’t trying to do their best to prevent disasters. BP and the companies they worked with did not want this to happen. It just happened. Unplanned.

That’s the challenge – unplanned. What can we do to prevent the disaster from happening? Are you ready? Or ready enough? The reality is that we can’t live a business life without a disaster but the challenge back is that many businesses just do not prepare well enough to deal with disasters. Risk is one thing. Cost and risk combined generally brings us that little bit closer to disasters.

Let’s look at the oil disaster again. Some are arguing that the lack of a safeguard device resulted in this oil spill becoming the disaster it is today. The WSJ (and many others) reported that the Leaking Oil Well Lacked (a) Safeguard Device. I won’t go into the details of what this device does as I am no oil expert, but the argument goes that Brazil and Norway requires oil companies to have this device in place as it chokes off the oil flow in case of an emergency. The US doesn’t require this – and most countries don’t. The oil industry lobbied hard to not have this requirement. The main reason? It adds $500,000 to cost.

It’s easy to look at it now and say that this decision by the US government (under President Bush) and the oil industry was a major mistake. However, responsible companies do not wait to be regulated into best practices – they lead. Without naming the company, I worked with a US company who adopted best practices as required in Australia because they believed it was the best thing to do for the company – and the most sustainable. Responsible companies have to manage the costs that comes with taking in best practices but one great disaster substantially undermines the argument of “too much costs”. How much do you think one single big disaster will cost your company? It’s always difficult to judge the effectiveness and cost argument when nothing goes wrong when you prepared for it though.

But I want to take this one step further – are you truly global?

We talk about those large companies as global because they work across the globe. But the truth is that few companies really are global in practice. They might source from or sell to the globe but they don’t always have the required global systems in place. A responsible company will ensure that their responsibility practices and policies are global. You take what is best in the market and make that global. Not only for preventing oil spills but also when it comes to hiring practices, recognizing human rights, transparency, environmental impact etc. Responsible companies do not go to the “what is legally required” level – they go to “what is required” level. Required by investors, stakeholders, employees and society as a whole. BP should ask themselves where the valve falls. Pharmaceuticals should ask where access or intellectual property rights fall. Food companies should ask where obesity, advertising to children, nutritional information etc falls. Clothing and footwear manufacturers should ask where working conditions, human rights and dyeing falls. Every company should have a heart-to-heart and ask themselves where their major potential disaster(s) fall.

…And companies are still surprised why consumers and activists are tired of green washing? It’s because they know that you are one wrong risk assessment away from a disaster – in the open or in the closet.

What is your oil spill waiting to happen? And what are you doing about it?

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We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.

Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of  better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.

The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.

Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…

The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.

The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.

It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.

The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)

These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.

Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.

The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?

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Palm Oil & Stakeholder Engagement: The Road To Nowhere?

Reuters reported that Unilever is considering buying Palm Oil from Greenpeace target Sinar Mas again. Not surprisingly, Greenpeace is asking Unilever to not go down this road as they just plain don’t trust Sinar Mas. A bit of background – Greenpeace accuses Sinar Mas (and their subsidiaries) of cutting down rainforests to plant more Palm Oil to keep up with the unstoppable appetite of large food companies (and others) – themselves trying to supply us consumers with those goods we perceive ‘we just cannot do without’. The fight between Greenpeace and Sinar Mas is interesting but three CSR and Sustainability issues stand out for me – apart from deforestation.

Firstly, why would Unilever even consider this? The Greenpeace targeting of Sinar Mas will not go away no matter what the independent auditors find. Independent audits have serious flaws (limited access, resources, links with local groups etc) that will make it easy for Greenpeace to shoot it down no matter what happens. Do Unilever really need Sinar Mas this badly that they are willing to take the brunt of a Greenpeace attack? Especially because Unilever said they might buy from Sinar Mas even if they don’t pass the audit – as long as Sinar Mas promises to clean up their act. Unilever is really playing a dangerous game with Greenpeace here. Greenpeace have highlighted the leadership role of Unilever in their campaign and all that goodwill will be flushed down the drain the minute they start buying from Sinar Mas again. I find it an odd decision and would love to know about the business pressures that made them decide this as that might help me understand the point of conflict between sustainability and business reality in this case. Whatever the case, I think the Unilever reputation will take a serious knock if they start buying from Sinar Mas again – no matter what the auditors have to say.

Secondly, and more in defense of Unilever, should responsible companies not put pressure on their suppliers to become more sustainable? Is Unilever not doing the right thing here? Instead of walking away completely, Unilever is using their influence over suppliers to force them to become more sustainable. That is what we ask companies to do – influence suppliers. The clothing, textile and footwear industry (and leaders such as Nike, Timberland and Levi’s) have used their influence to drive change in manufacturers. It’s not perfect but we can at least agree that it is so much better than the working conditions and human rights issues back in the 80s and 90s. Instead of attacking Unilever should Greenpeace (and other activists) not acknowledge that Unilever is trying to use their size for good?

Thirdly, why aren’t they talking to each other? Why isn’t Greenpeace more involved in the audit? Should Greenpeace not work with Unilever to define what that sustainability look like? It would be a breath of fresh air if Unilever and Greenpeace engaged before the Unilever decision to define what the audit should look like, where and what they should investigate and agree on a set of principles – including the independent role of Greenpeace. Instead of doing real stakeholder engagement on this Unilever and Sinar Mas had discussions and agreed on the principles and the auditors – leaving out key stakeholders in the process.

This just seems so unnecessary. Unilever is a good company doing some excellent work in sustainability – a good business with a good impact on development. And they’ve done some innovative work in stakeholder engagement with Oxfam and others. Greenpeace knows that and have said as much in the past. These two don’t need to fight. There are bigger fish to fry. It’s just such a missed opportunity.

(On a completely separate note. I wonder how the Unilever drive for Allanblackia is coming along. They had some high hopes for this tree as they claimed it was more environmentally friendly than Palm Oil and could be of even better use in soaps and spreads. Unilever has done some interesting work trying to make Allanblackia more economically viable. I just hope it doesn’t turn into another Palm Oil nightmare for this world. Early reports indicated that Allanblackia might be one key answer in getting us off our Palm Oil addiction but we’re still waiting.)

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Is this where your savings are?

I have to say that it is one of my least favorite corporate practices – mountaintop removal or MTR. I just don’t see any sustainable benefit from it. And it’s pretty ugly too. So no surprise that people continue to target the industry for some activist scrutiny. 

Their latest target is JPMorgan Chase. Young activists are targeting JPMorgan Chase for underwriting “environmental Armageddon”. Harsh words but that’s in the nature of activism. Although I am interested in the MTR issue this specific campaign raises another long standing interest of mine – defining CSR and Sustainability for the banking and financial sector.

The recent economic meltdown raised serious questions on the role of banks and financial institutions and how they serve society. I’m not going to go there as it is well documented and an ongoing discussion. But I would like to propose we think of banks in a similar way that we look at other companies – via their value chain.

We ask of companies to be responsible by looking at the impact of their business operations as well as throughout their supply chain – upstream and downstream. It’s not good enough for a clothing company to only look at their own operations, they now have to have guidelines and systems in place to ensure their suppliers don’t commit human rights violations. Today we go even further by asking companies to also look at the environmental impact of their suppliers and to favor those who have a better environmental impact.

Of course we also ask companies to make sure that they take some level of responsibility for their products once they leave their stores. We expect computer manufacturers to offer some level of recycling and we want bottled beverage companies to take responsibility for the bottles they sold us. Heck, some cities and states help us (and the companies) to recycle these goods.

In short, we ask companies to make sure their products are manufactured in a responsible way and that they take responsibility even when they no longer ‘own’ the product.

Banking works the same way. We don’t want banks to make money through theft or money laundering and we don’t want them to fund terrorism or offer services to dictators or organized crime. That’s the easy part…

Why do we not expect them to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their services? Banks make investments that could threaten our future through global warming possible. Should they not be held responsible? Should we not measure the environmental impact of their money? Or rather, the environmental impact of their “investments”?

For me it goes beyond activism as we can then start measuring the impact of banks and financial services. We can make judgements on the values of these companies based on the impact they have – directly or indirectly. And the nature of CSR and Sustainability is to adapt to make it work for each industry. Maybe this is the way we can start figuring out the social and environmental impact of companies offering services – look at the impact they result in.

Maybe then we’ll stop funding everything in the name of profit. Or at least know what a responsible and sustainable bank looks like.

Do you know where your investment is going?

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