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Archive for the ‘business associations’ Category

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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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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A bit of a mix-and-match today. I guess that’s what you get after a weekend…

1. Bottled Water Wars

Most people know that I’m not a huge fan of the anti-bottled water campaign. I think the campaign is too easy and lack substance and sometimes even just plain light on facts. But sometimes the bottled water people just asks to be hit. You might recall that I wrote about the cool anti-bottled water video by Annie Leonard in a Daily Stain. Well, as expected, the bottled water industry ‘hit back.’ Let’s look at what they had to say, shall we?

First they had to tackle the recycling figures used by Annie Leonard and the team. Annie and team said that 80% of plastic bottles in the United States end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators. Sound pretty awful doesn’t it? So the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), using different statistics, hit back saying that “water bottles were the most recycled plastic containers in the United States, with a 30.9 percent recycling rate.” Now just hang on a minute here. So they are arguing that 69.1% vs 80% no recycling makes a huge difference? I am sorry, but 30.9% is just as bad a fail as 20%. Pick any one of the two but they both point to one single thing – a failure of recycling plastic bottles. Period. Don’t nitpick percentages when your own figures are so miserable.

The second bit of the IBWA statement that hit me as odd was this beauty: “‘Consumers are really quite thoughtful in selecting and enjoying a safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” What would you have thought they were referring to if you read this sentence without knowing the context first? Water right? How about good old tap water? That is a “safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” Actually, I would add “almost free” to that sentence if they did indeed refer to tap water and that would make it a very smart drink choice… Sorry IBWA, by using the words “safe” and “healthy” in the same line it seems as if you indirectly hint that either (1) other drinks in plastic containers aren’t safe or healthy (orange juice anyone?) and that (2) water not in plastic containers might not be as safe and healthy. Wrong again. Please refrain from using this line. Either say what you mean and be transparent about what you mean or don’t say anything at all. Hinting has never been the best defense.

The third argument was another open door for criticism. The IBWA said that “bottled water was a necessity – particularly in emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes.” Mmm… Let’s think about that one. Makes perfect sense. So tell me IBWA, how much of bottled water sold is actually for emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes? A tiny fraction of the actual total sold. I don’t see a flood or a tsunami or an earthquake hitting any of the people walking the streets right now with the bottled water in their hands. It’s another weak argument where you are trying to twist the argument and not address the real issue. I am sorry – get better arguments as none of the large bottled water companies would survive if they only sold bottled water for use during emergencies.

The bottled water industry’s case wasn’t helped by the UN reporting that bottled water isn’t sustainable – wasting resources and consuming 17 million barrels of oil a year. Ouch… That must have hurt.

Are you surprised that Annie’s video has been watched over 150,000 times and the IBWA one around 300 times? I’m not. Apart from the entertainment value and lack of clear arguments on the side of the IBWA - the biggest reason? Annie and team have no vested interest in this apart from helping the world be a bit more sustainable. Yes they might be wrong in some of their facts and not know the line between fact and fiction as often as we like, but the average Joe in the street knows that the IBWA is protecting their interests and industry while Annie and her team have no money in this game. Values vs Value. And when it comes to story telling – values tend to be more creative and believable.

2.   How responsible is clean tech companies?

We tend to assume that a company that has some inherent goodness in the product must be a good corporate citizen right? And I don’t mean that goodness captured in that burger joint you frequent. Think of the Prius – good for the environment so it must be good. Mmm… Maybe we need to rethink that one. Yes, the Prius is better for the environment than the alternative Hummer but it’s not exactly eco-friendly. Just a tad friendlier. I wouldn’t suck on the exhaust pipe just yet – still emitting some bad stuff, just less than others. And let’s not even talk about how the car is made.

But that’s almost too obvious. How about clean tech companies? Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition just did a study to create a Solar Scorecard. Pretty neat and interesting way to look at companies we assume would be green and clean. As with the Prius, they found that not everything is the way we expect it to be. Some of the companies rate pretty well while others rank low when it comes to their use of toxic materials and broad environmental practices. Neat, but it triggered something else for me.

What about the social impact and practices of these “green” companies? Do we assume that they are great because of the products they produce? Well, just half of them have analyzed the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains, and half also have worker codes of conduct in place with their suppliers. Not so great. Just half have checked that those products that help nature don’t nail people?

Maybe we are forgetting that nature means nothing to humans if humans don’t exist. Saving the earth only has relevance if people can enjoy what is saved. Maybe we should worry about people as much as we worry about the environment. Sure, go hug a tree but when last did you hug a human?

3. Foul smell of NatGeo

Maybe the world economy is really going down the tube when an institution like National Geographic sells it’s brand down the river. I’ve always assumed that National Geographic is all about nature - recording it, protecting it and not selling it. But not anymore. The Guardian ran an excellent piece about National Geographic putting its name next to a few air fresheners. Two broad thoughts on this.

First, and one that really hit the spot, was the names that they gave the air fresheners. One was called Alaska’s Glacier Bay (the others were Japan Tatami and Nevada Desert Flower.) Really? Now how do you capture the natural essence of Alaska’s Glacier Bay? A little bit of Ppg-3 Ethyl Ether, a dash of Parfum, a hint of Linalool, a drop or two of Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, a handful of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, some Hydroxycitronellal, pinch of Geraniol, a little Coumarin, and some Citronellol, Cinnamyl, Alcohol, Limonene and Cinnamal to round it off.

Or as the Guardian puts it, “Mmmmm, I love the smell of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde in the morning.” Yes… Maybe not so natural.

And it’s a plug-in as well? Pulling electricity from those oil wells in Alaska to power the Alaska’s Glacier Bay? Really silly idea.

But the biggest problem is the National Geographic brand. Who thought this was a good idea? If they tried to sell me a tumbler made from recycled materials or a backpack or some hiking boots then fine. But the Guardian rightly points out that this deal undermines the National Geographic brand and the values people thought it stood for. Really… It smells foul.

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I’ve seen this add a few times on my telly – a group of employers asking people to write to some politician to get him to vote against the proposed health care reform. I’m not going to give this specific group any more free time but the NY Times has an article on the broader topic of businesses using their dough to stop health care reform. It’s irritated the living hell out of me. To those businesses and business associations behind these efforts, would you mind answering the following few questions to help me dig deeper into you as a responsible company and/or business association?

1. Could you please spend this money on providing your workers with decent health care?

I am always amused by companies being able to spend so much money to lobby for a cause they so strongly belief in but not always spend the same amount of money on a good cause – helping their workers get good health care in this case. It’s not unique to health care though. Many companies spend millions of dollars to keep their interests riding high. Sometimes this is a good thing because it has broader societal and/or environmental benefits as well. For instance, a company that I admire but that will remain nameless used the need for health care reform as their first time dipping their toes into the lobbying field. In this case they were (and remain) worried that the spiralling cost of health care will undermine one of their fundamental commitments - providing all their employees with decent health care. They lobbied because their commitment to their workers could be under threat in the long-term. Good on them. But so often companies do not lobby for something that can be seen as a broader societal good. Vested interests and an irrational fear of change drive their lobbying agendas instead of putting the money towards addressing those issues that requires attention. Do remember that most governments do not write policies and legislation purely for the fun of it but rather because something is dramatically wrong. Lobbying against it will not solve the problem. It will only extend the pain until it becomes unbearable and then we all pay. Please ask yourself a very simple question the next time you want to lobby on another “anti” platform – Am I being part of the solution or not? Come up with solutions instead of being anti change. Being negative might be easier but it is not a sign of a responsible company. Either in CSR and sustainability or business in general. Business thrive by making things happen and finding new solutions (through products, services, operations etc.) Unfortunately the general business approach to lobbying undermines this fundamental business principle.

2. Could you please stand up and name yourself?

Why do so many companies hide behind alliances and business associations? They are first to claim they are so green or they do so much for their local communities but when it comes to the lobbying stuff they tend to be quiet and hide behind an association where they can huddle without being seen. Why? Is it because you are not 100% convinced that you are right? Or that you do believe that maybe society will see (now or in the future) that your lobbying position is actually not in their interest? In this case it is very convenient to hide behind an alliance because your own workers might actually see that you support something that is NOT in their interest. You’ll notice that these ads are by employers and not by employees. Why? Because employees will benefit from these changes while employers are arguing that they won’t. Convenient isn’t it? It’s easy for the employer to stand up and take a stand while hiding behind a wall of secrecy called “alliance”. Guess what? Most US employees do not have the same luxury. Their alliance is the union and most employers fight the unions with every ounce of power they have. So it is okay for employers to be free to join any “union” they want but not for the employees. Double standards if I have ever seen one and not a sign of a responsible company or business association. It’s not only health care though. It’s almost every issue where society or the environment might be threatened by the status quo. Climate change… Why are some companies sponsoring critics to argue against climate change without making any scientific arguments of their own in public? Maybe because being open and honest about what you believe in might not be popular. No one ever said transparency will be easy but that is the cornerstone of a responsible company. Own what you believe in please. Don’t be ashamed of what you believe in. Come out the closet and be loud and proud of who you are even if others might not agree with you. That is a sign of responsibility.

3. Could you please find a name that works?

The organization that fronts these businesses and business association pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – get a snappy name no one can argue with… “Employers for a Healthy Economy.” As if anyone who do not agree with them are arguing against a healthy economy. It’s just greenwashing with another name. Claiming one thing when really you can’t claim this to be unique or even true. It is misleading and does not deal with the issue you are tackling. It would be like a single car manufacturer starting an alliance called “Manufacturers for Safe Cars.” Duh! Please use a name that is relevant and true and not something that plays into populist hands or misleading. Misleading people and false advertising – not signs of a responsible company or business association.

4. Could you please keep better company?

A good way of judging whether an initiative is looking at who are the alliance partners. Many stood out but one in particular… the US Chamber of Commerce. I won’t go into details of how many companies have left the US Chamber of Commerce because of their out-of-touch position on climate change but their position on health care reform is interesting to say the least. As a conservative lobbying association one would predictable expect the Chamber to be against health care reform – but they go further than just being against reform. The Washington Post reported in November 2009 on how the Chamber “proposes spending $50,000 to hire a ‘respected economist’ to study the impact of health-care legislation … would have on jobs and the economy.” That’s the nice part – nothing wrong with a study to inform us. But what if they already decided what the outcome should be? In the email exchanges they made their intentions clear and assumed the outcome of the study by saying that “the economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document.” Nice… Sounds like climate skeptic type research to me. They sure know how to pick their partners don’t they? I wonder if they used this research to back up their claims in those ads on television? It seems as if some people just don’t get the basic methodology of sound research. Responsible companies and business associations do not predetermine the findings of their research. They do their research and then make up their minds.

5. Could you please refrain from lying?

My point above on question 4 should clear this up for you. Did you solicit a study that had to fit their “facts” into your already defined position or did you do a proper study? Anyone who starts a sentence off with “In fact…” generally tells the opposite right after that statement. A responsible company and business association will not lie. It will tell the truth even if it isn’t what they wanted to hear. Furthermore, a responsible company/association will not have research targeting a predetermined outcome. Any study initiated and/or supported by a group with a vested interest should be taken with a pinch of salt. It reeks of the “favorite hamburger/coffee/pizza” stuff you see on television. Really people, stop treating us like idiots. If you fund a study or a survey and “tweak” questions to ensure the “facts” support your position… Not a sign of a responsible company or business association.

A responsible company and business association will be transparent, open and honest even when they are wrong. More importantly, a truly responsible company will not join an alliance or association who can not display these principles of responsibility. Are you hustling the truth or are you a responsible company? Your choice. I’ll decide where to put my pen and money once I get an answer.

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