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Archive for the ‘civil society’ Category

Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

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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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It feels like 1990 all over again. How many times do we go through these arguments that CSR is dead or CSR isn’t a very good description or that CSR is so yesterday. It seems as if we are back at the drawing board again. First we had Aneel Karnani make his Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility in the WSJ last year. Then we had Michael Porter and Mark Kramer argue in the Harvard Business Review that CSR is an old concept and that the new way forward is CSV – Creating Shared Value. And now we have Alberto Andreau arguing that Shifting From CSR To CSV Isn’t The Solution and that the truth and future lies in Corporate Sustainability. Oh boy, here we go again…

I won’t go into detail into Dr Karnani’s argument. It has been dealt with from all angles and most agree that he missed the point a bit. What he perceives to be CSR isn’t CSR but only what some companies claim to be CSR. He was working with the concept of CSR as practiced maybe 20 odd years ago but CSR and CSR practices today have changed dramatically. His definition and understanding of CSR was wrong and his argument therefore based on the wrong assumption. But what about Porter and Kramer, and Andreau? I would argue that they are making the exact same mistake as Dr Karnani. They are using a definition of CSR that is outdated and their understanding of CSR is based on what CSR was 20 years ago – or maybe even closer to 5 or so years ago.

Let me first say that it is an excellent piece. They capture the latest thinking and practices of CSR very well. Unfortunately they then argue that this is CSV and not CSR. It’s not, it’s still CSR. And what they propose isn’t completely new either. Those of us who have been working at the sharp end of CSR have been working on a similar concept and approach for a few years already but we didn’t call it shared value – we coined mutual or co-responsibility. The idea of mutual or co-responsibility is that (leading) companies should focus their CSR on those areas where they share an impact and opportunity with key stakeholders. Starbucks can focus on the cup when they deal with consumers and on sourcing when they work with farmers – helping consumer have a better impact and helping farmers increase yields, get better prices, be more sustainable etc. Levi’s helping consumer limit the impact of their jeans and working with farmers in farming cotton. Best Buy recycling or even buying back older technology. And many more leading companies share this approach to CSR.

Furthermore, we’ve focused more specifically on key stakeholders and not society as whole. There is a reason why – society is too broad a concept for a company to focus on. Break society into the various stakeholder groups and be specific in who you target – key stakeholders such as consumers or suppliers or investors or regulators or your local communities or even distant communities. The more targeted you are the better the chance of success. Of course you should always target more than one stakeholder but try to be as targeted as possible to know exactly where the shared value or mutual responsibility/opportunity might be. CSR works best when it is targeted.

Back to the meaning of CSR…

CSR has changed it’s meaning and how it is used substantially since the 1970s. It started off as all about compliance and pressure from activists for expand on their philanthropic commitments. But today it is as diverse as the concept of business. Business isn’t a singular description anymore. It describes anything from a large multinational company with a diverse set of products to an informal trader working in the streets of a township in Africa. It’s a bit like pornography – we know it when we see it.

Let’s define CSR quickly to provide some clarity. This isn’t a perfect science as we don’t have a single agreed definition. Mine is simple and I don’t claim this to be the final definition of CSR: CSR is the way an organization manages and communicates its impact on society and the environment. Simple. But it is this simplicity that hides the complexity and diversity of how we practice and implement CSR.

Porter and Kramer make the same mistake that Dr Karnani did by not recognizing the diversity within the CSR field. Some practice CSR in the risk management, compliance and/or philanthropy way they explain it and other practice CSR in the shared value way they explain CSV. It’s the nature of the beast – CSR is not a single discipline that covers every single company in the same way. Each company and industry focus on it in a different way. For example, for pharma it makes sense to focus on philanthropy because it is in the nature of the product(s) they offer. It makes sense to donate products to people who can’t afford it – or else they die. As simple as that. It doesn’t mean they don’t focus on other areas but their priority focus will most likely be around philanthropy – and at the core of their business: finding new drugs to help us deal with our health challenges. For companies such as Starbucks it is very different because they focus on consumers and farmers. They help farmers improve their practices and pay a premium price and help consumers improve their impact by offering recycling and encouraging them to use tumblers. Companies and industries are diverse in how they practice CSR. At best it focuses on those areas where their products or service intersects with society – and where the greatest societal needs intersects with business opportunities (or responsibilities).

(Of course we learn from different practices and improve on it but it is always unique for each company – or should be – as it should focus on the specific value the company offers through it’s unique products and/or services and brand and corporate identity.)

Some companies just do not have a shared value with society – or they have a very difficult case to make. For example, tobacco companies can build a solid case of shared value in their sourcing practices (and some do) but they will have a difficult case to make for shared value with the broader society. And the same goes for arms dealers/manufacturers, some military contractors etc.

Shared value is also limited by the timeframe and current knowledge. If we look at societal needs and shared value today then it makes perfect sense to provide a society suffering economically the cheapest fuel and energy. But we know that this will have a negative long-term impact. Shared value shifts and moves with time. What might be a shared value today is another issue to deal with tomorrow.

The idea of renaming CSR to CSV because of the perceived new way is futile. The debate continues each and every day and was at a height 5-7 years ago when some CSR practitioners (like me) argued that CSR has changed from compliance to differentiator and should therefore be renamed because it is now about business opportunities and not compliance-led responsibility. I was wrong back then. I confused the definition of CSR with the practice of CSR. And this is the fundamental mistake of Porter and Kramer. And Karnani and Andreau. They confuse the definition of CSR with the practice of CSR. The practice of CSR is complex and diverse – adapted to the needs of the complexity of business and flexible enough to continue to adapt and change with time and knowledge.

CSV isn’t the new CSR. It is a way of practicing CSR. I would even go so far as to say that it is the ideal way of practicing CSR – finding the shared value with society (or specific stakeholder groups). But it isn’t something different from CSR. It is how some practice CSR. And a damn good way to implement CSR if it makes sense for a company to do so.

As for Andreau – the same argument holds. Corporate Sustainability is just another way of practicing CSR.

Of course a major flaw of Anfreau’s argument is his argument that we need to widen the meaning of sustainability to ensure it covers everything he wants sustainability to stand for. Why is it acceptable to adapt the meaning of sustainability but somehow not acceptable to do the same with CSR? Actually, I am not asking for a change in the meaning of CSR but only a recognition of its complexity. I agree with his call for simplicity but I don’t think that changing the name will help. The simplicity lies in the earlier definition of CSR I gave and the complexity in the execution.

All the points made by Andreau is as true of CSR as of Corporate Sustainability: It’s a business approach; it seeks to create long-term value; it embraces opportunity; and it helps manage risk. Thank you Alberto, you described CSR very well – it’s all of the above. Simple but complex at the same time.

To quote Alberto and change it just a little: “This is where the future lies: A unified return to CSR. Not CSR only in terms of philanthropy or compliance only but a sense of CSR related to value, opportunities and risk management.”

In conclusion, what is described as CSV and Corporate Sustainability are not new but captures some of the latest developments of how we practice CSR. And they do an excellent job of expanding the thinking of how we (should) practice CSR. But there is a limit to their contribution. Let’s not get distracted by shiny objects and new names – let’s stop this arguing about what we call it as it doesn’t help us do the work we are doing and distract us with discussions about terminology. The value of Porter and Kramer, and Andreau, gets lost in the discussion of terminology. We argue about what we should call it instead of expanding the discipline and practice of CSR. The value of Porter and Kramer lies not in calling it CSV but in strengthening the practice of CSR – shared value, co-responsibility, mutual responsibility etc. I think their description of mutual responsibility is a much better description of my own – shared value describes it better than my idea of mutual or co-responsibility.

By focusing on what we call it we lose the value of Porter and Kramer’s work when they describe the roots of shared value – taking on Friedman, showing how shared value is a traditional part of the best companies, show how reconceiving products and markets can bring new value to business and society, highlight local cluster development as a driver to create shared value, and so much more. None of this is new – Starbucks have been sourcing this way for over 10 years; cluster development is a natural phenomenon and the modern version was started by a history prof and a garage owner in Chihuahua, Mexico; most companies started with a shared value offer – from Walmart bringing cheap food to the poorest Americans as close to their homes as possible to the mom-and-pop shops offering locally produced good. The beauty does not lie in the fact that they create the concept of CSV but rather in their ability bring the latest thinking and practices of CSR into one single place – and drive us further forward in the implementation and practice of CSR. It is a powerful piece and one that should be used to defend CSR and show how CSR has grown instead of using it to divide us even more because of a debate on terminology. Let’s stop arguing what we call it and focus on what we practice and do each and every single day. Let’s advance the discipline of CSR instead of creating more divisions through renaming it. Let’s focus on improving the impact of business on society and identify mutually beneficial opportunities instead of looking at the impact of what we call it. Let’s just do it instead of calling it…

CSR is dead! Long live CSR!

(Disclosure: As promised, I think it is only ethical and right for me to mention when I have worked or work with a company I mention in my post. It’s called transparency. All of the companies mentioned above – Starbucks, Levi’s and Best Buy are clients.)

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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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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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