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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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Sustainability should be much simpler than what we make it out to be. It’s not very complicated – take actions today that leaves the world in a better or no worse place for future generations. But the devil is always in the details. And this made me think a little of what are the different levels of sustainability. And how the concept of sustainability and the current trends influence business in the future. I’m sure this is way too simple so feel free to chip in and help define the levels of sustainability. These are rough thoughts that was hatched during my daily commute on public transport and therefore very rough…

Why make these distinctions? Because it helps us know how to work with and help each company. They are all very different and needs to be treated differently. Many moons ago I had a client who asked me to help them become “like Timberland”. My response was pretty straight forward – “You know you are an extractive company, right?”

More importantly, it helps us think of the future of sustainability. We know what a sustainable future should or could look like – what role does business play in this future?

1. I don’t do sustainability

There are many companies out there who just plain do not believe in sustainability. They believe in one thing and one thing only – increasing their ROI for the next few days. Even a quarter is a long-term vision for them. They will campaign against anything that asks them to take their impact into consideration – climate change, labor rights, equality in the workplace etc. They will comply to local laws because they have to and not always because they want to. That’s why they lobby and fight against so many of these laws. They will take subsidies without thinking of their own responsibility. They will cut corners where they can – and in most cases stick within the law. They will sell you snake oil and call it green. They’ll do the minimum and think that is the actions of a responsible company. They will use meaningless words and phrases that sound cute but mean nothing like “the business of business is business“. I won’t spend too much time on these companies. Arguing with them is a losing fight. They see what they want to see and nothing we can say or do will make them change their ways. I won’t invest in them and I won’t work with them. There are just too many other companies trying their best and who needs counsel, help and support. Let’s rather focus on those who see the sustainability of their company and the world as linked to their business bottom line. In any case, I don’t believe these companies will survive for long. History shows us that companies that think this way eventually just die a slow death. Eventually society will see them for who they are – in it for themselves and not really part of society.

2. I act responsibly

Of course there are a range of companies who just aren’t sustainable. The nature of their business and/or their current business model means that they can act responsibly but the company itself cannot be seen as sustainable. They must change how they source or manufacture over time to become sustainable. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be good corporate citizens. Many if them are good citizens who act with great responsibility. I see them as the CSR group rather than the sustainability group – a small but important distinction. Let me use an industry as an example. Most companies in the extractive industry just cannot be seen as practicing sustainability. They take stuff from the grounds and can’t replace it. They can’t leave that specific world in the same or better place. It’s a stretch for them to claim that. I worked with a very well respected luxury goods company and they refused to use the word sustainability. When I asked them why their response was “Because we mine diamonds and can’t put it back. And eventually we will run out of diamonds.” When will they run out of diamonds? Who knows! But the principle is right. But they do incredible work – one of my top 5 companies when it comes to CSR. Incredible work. They do everything right when it comes to sourcing their diamonds, adding value in developing countries where they source from, refuse to buy rubies from Burma, lobby against unsustainable mining practices – they tick all the boxes. But the nature of their business means they take full responsibility of their impact and are incredible corporate citizens – just not sustainable. This is in no way knocking them. Many of these companies do incredible work in difficult circumstances and delivers a product we desperately need today (and tomorrow) – we can’t live without them. I am proud to be associated with them and to work with them. So many of them are shining examples of what responsible businesses could and should be doing. Those in the group who practice sustainability can learn from these companies on what true responsibility in communities and supply chains mean and how to measure and reduce your impact in the world.

3. I am sustainable

Sustainability is slowly but surely becoming mainstream. More and more companies are embracing the discipline of sustainability to build a better business for the future. They have practices that highlight what can be done to make business work and help secure our joint future. They source in ways that do not deplete these resources. They take action on their energy use and tackle climate change in action and voice. They treat workers with respect and speak out against injustices. They will help their suppliers to become more sustainable themselves. They will take responsibility for their products and empower consumers to take responsiblity where they have a joint responsibility – such as driving recycling with consumers. These are the companies who are the leaders of today. They believe in values adding value. They know their future business success is tied to the sustainability of the world around them. The way they operate, source and manufacture, ensures they still have the ability to operate this way in future – the resources are replenished to ensure a better or same tomorrow. The world will be a poorer place without them. In so many ways.

4. I help make the world sustainable

This fourth category is the one that bugs me the most. It’s the most challenging and most complex. Maybe I should break it up into more levels of sustainable businesses, but for now I will keep the three distinctions of this group here.

The easy part is identifying those social innovators and entrepreneurs who focus on developing a business solution to a social problem. They are different from group 3 mentioned above because the nature of the products and services of group 3 is not aimed at a social problem but more about the “wants” of people. Most of the purchases of today are not because we need it but because we want it. We think we need a tablet but we don’t really need it, we just want it. A smartphone is a luxury and not a need. How many pairs of shoes do you need versus how many you want? Companies who are in group 3 still sells products in the “want” category but do so by taking responsibility for their actions and impact by making sustainability part of how they source, manufacture and take responsibility for their final product (waste etc). The social innovators focus on creating products and services society needs – new ways to get clean water to the poor, medicine people need to survive, nutritional products aimed specifically at groups in need, renewable energy solutions in challenging environments, energy-efficient cars (it’s more of a need than want if you only have one car!) – and much much more. They link the need of society to new product or service development and build a business around that. In some cases they might be a non-profit but the principle is still providing a tradeable solution to societal needs – micro-financing is a classic example.

Some of the companies in this category falls outside of this social innovation group though. They are still innovators but they actually focus on the want and not on the need. They develop new products and services that still deal with the current consumer behaviour of buying more stuff that is cool. They tap into the pop culture and fashion of the day and gives it a unique spin by giving it a social value over and above the hip new product. Think of TOMS. The product they sell isn’t unique and neither did they bring a product to life that deals with a specific societal need. They tapped into the mainstream consumer market by creating a cool new “I-want-that” product that has a huge societal benefit attached to it. The business model is very unique but the product itself is not. The concept itself is not that unique either. It is a logical evolution of cause marketing coming into maturity. From attaching a cause to a product to the cause becoming central to the product concept development itself.

The 3rd and last group in this category is the one I struggle with the most and my ideas are still only half-baked here so please feel free to rip it apart. But humor me for a moment.

All of these businesses in this group and the other categories still work within the system we know – sell more products and services to consumers. It operates within the current system. The challenges we face as a society today is challenging this system though. The question being asked is whether we can continue to expect these levels of consumption and be a sustainable world? I’m not talking about a narrow definition of sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption debates have focused on selling more sustainable products and taking responsibility for your product post-consumer- whether it is how they are manufactured or used. The premise remains the same – sell more stuff. Sell stuff to increase ROI by creating new markets or pushing market share.

Is this system itself sustainable though? Can we really expect to build a more sustainable future by maintaining the same credit levels and expecting people to continue to buy more things? Let me give you an example… Are we any closer to sustainability if every single pair of shoes sold in the world now and in the future is made by TOMS? If we buy TOMS at the same rate of growth – does that make the world sustainable? TOMS might have a great business model but the world can’t handle buying at the same level we’ve had over the last 10-30 years – even if it is TOMS…

That is the essence of the challenge for companies – how to change the business model to remain profitable in a world that needs lower consumption levels and somehow keep investors happy. This would be the next level of business and sustainability. But this is a balancing act that is asking a lot…

The honest truth is that I have no clue how we can do this. Like I said, it’s just something that is bugging me at the moment. Somewhere the answer lies and I believe that good businesses, and society in general, will come up with an answer. We don’t have much of a choice as the runaway levels of consumption is not sustainable. And neither is the continuous pressure on the business bottom line via squeezed margins and market share. We’re close to a tipping point.

This goes way beyond the “Shared Value” concept. Shared Value argues we look at where business and society intersects and finding the joint value in that relationship to drive business and societal benefits. But what if the real value is to share less?

I don’t have the answer. But it’s worth exploring the options as doing nothing might not be an option for much longer.

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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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We can all breathe a sigh of relief - the recession is over! Oops… Actually the recession was over in June 2009 already. So let’s get this party started!

But for some reason the public party hasn’t stated yet. The recession is over but the pain remains for the Average Joe in the street. No jobs being created and a drop in the average wealth of Americans just to rub salt in the wounds. But it’s been bad for everyone, no doubt. And we all did our fair share of suffering during the recession – some more than others. More importantly, companies practiced their responsibility during the recession, right?

A few things have really bugged me during this recession – or whatever you want to call it. It comes down to a simple question of how would a responsible company act during a recession. I’m not convinced that all companies acted as responsible as they should have during these tough economic times.

Firstly, it’s been reported that corporate cash in America is at a record high. The Fed estimated $1.8 trillion in total corporate cash balances in both absolute numbers and as a percent of total corporate revenue. A nice pile of money. And of course there are rational thinking behind it. They have good reasons for keeping the cash. But having a rational reason doesn’t mean it is the right reason. I feel uncomfortable knowing that it was the public money that bailed out so many companies. And that it is public money going into the stimulus that targets businesses of all sizes to benefit. And that people expect the public to start spending to get the economy going again. People are paying for this recession through job losses and rising public debt. My question – what should a company that believes it has a responsibility towards the public do during these times? Should it keep record cash stashed away for when the economy picks up or should it use that money to also help stimulate the economy? It just feels as if all expectations are on the average Joe in the street and the government to lead the recovery while too many businesses sit and wait it out until the economy has recovered. Doesn’t make sense when they always promote the idea that they are the heart of the economy. Really? And when the blood doesn’t flow as fast as you like you decide to stop beating for a while?

I believe a responsible company would acknowledge that they are as much of the problem as all of us – and do as much as the rest of us when trying to dig ourselves out of it. They expect us to start spending to get this economy going. We expect them to start spending as well. You don’t want us to put all our money in the bank right now. You want us to buy new cars, build new houses, buy more clothes, speculate on the market – make the little we have work for the economy. Ditto… We want you to invest in new fleets, upgrade your facilities, keep your workers… Make your money work and make it work now. I’ll do it when you do it. Don’t ask the public to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. Stop giving us reasons why you are holding the cash. You might have good reasoning but not as good as the reasons why you should make that cash work now. It’s always easier to say why you won’t do something than doing the right thing. And remember, the quicker we get out of this the better it will be for all of us.

Secondly, this thing about those jobs not being created… I am always amazed how companies consistently tell me that their employees are their greatest assets. Really? But you don’t hesitate to “downsize” when the bad times roll? If employees are really the greatest asset that a company might have – how about keeping those crown jewels during tough times? Of course I understand that companies will have to fire workers during really tough times. And we’ve had really tough times. But let’s put these tough times into a bit of perspective.

Of course it makes 100% sense to let workers go when a company is making a loss. Companies cannot exist when not making money. But here is the catch. Many companies didn’t let workers go because of the losses the companies were making but because of lower profits. Many of them weren’t making losses, they were just making lower profits than before. That’s a huge difference. Making a loss means that you might have to close your doors and one of the only ways to save the company is to let a few people go – cut costs. But what if you are still making a profit but just lower than expected? Do you cut your workforce or define a new strategy to you can keep your “greatest asset” and be ready for when the good times kick in?

Maybe you should devise a strategy where you retrain those workers, maybe cut some hours off some of their time, maybe cut the bonuses and pay increases for all workers (including senior staff), invest in strengthening relationships with key customers etc – show your innovative spirit you brag about by finding new ways to keep your workers and stay profitable during tough times. Instead of laying people off you invest in them to be better placed than your competitors when the economy turns for the better? Your workforce will be better, sharper and your relationships stronger. I know a company who did exactly this and guess what? They actually grew at a higher rate than their competitors during the tough times and moved from number 3 in their industry to number 1. I’m just damn glad I work for that company… It helps when you have visionary leadership, your “greatest assets” believe in you as much as you believe in them, and we all work extra hard to make all of us better. Simple strategy? Yes. But it takes leadership to know that.

Maybe that is what a responsible company should be doing during a “slow growth” period. Instead of taking the easy option and letting people go you invest in them and grow your market share. Show you believe in your “greatest asset” as much as what you want them to believe in you. Leadership is defined not by what you do during the good times but what you do during the bad times. Relationships, loyalty, responsibility etc are defined in the same way – by what you do during the bad times and not the good times. The good times are easy but the bad times needs leadership, vision and balls.

But it goes beyond pure leadership. I think trade unions and employees were soft during these the recession as well. Too often they allowed the business side to frame the debate. They allowed business to panic and let workers go without a thoughtful strategy. Also, some companies used the opportunity to streamline their workforce that might not have been possible during other times. Cut human resources costs during the bad times always makes more sense from a risk and reputation perspective than doing it during the good times. Actually, it still comes back to leadership – what it takes to gear a company for the long-term and build a true culture of “great assets”.

You might not be able to create new jobs but you can show your responsibility as a company by not letting workers go during “slow growth” periods. It’s bad for all of us – every business suffered. But keeping your greatest assets intact and polishing them a bit will put you ahead of your competitors when the time comes. And now? Now you will be playing catch-up.

As a third point – the investor excuse. Of course many companies cut their workforce because investors demanded it. Those darn investors… They always want their 20% return each year. Actually, the 20% per year types aren’t really the problem. It’s those 1% week guys that are the problem – they want their money to go in-and-out and have no commitment to any specific business in the long run. So companies are under short-term pressure to show constant growth in returns. And if you can’t do it with growth then you do it by cutting costs. Talk about cutting off your nose…

Investor responsibility has been at the sidelines of CSR for far too long. We just can’t seem to get a grip on them. Maybe it is because we don’t know how to “sell” responsibility to them. Or maybe it is because many of them just don’t care. That’s for another day as Enron, BP etc have made a solid case on why CSR is important for investors… Here is a note for companies – how about you focusing on those who actually do care about you? We do. Us consumers and those workers of yours. We want you to succeed. Investors? The speculators amongst them don’t care about you one dime. What they do care about is the return they get from you in the next week or month. If they see someone better looking? They move on. They act like a 16-year-old who promises you the world as long as they can get what they want – untill they find the next hot one and move on. I’m 40-ish. I’ll stick with you if you promise to stick with me…

Last point on a responsible recession – patriotism. I was in a meeting a few weeks back with some of the best minds around. All of them geared towards helping a great company break through the clutter – they do so much that they create white noise instead of a clear position when it comes to CSR. Anyway, all these values were written on the board that reflected what the company stood for. And then someone said the “A” word – America… They argued that the company should show more pride in them being an American company with American values. Of course my first reaction was … WTF? I did point out that those values written on the board were no different from the corporate values practiced in my country of birth South Africa or the UK – or Europe. Or Japan. Or… The point was that most values are shared by various different cultures and that the differences are marginal not matter how much we like to tell ourselves something different.

But it did make me think about patriotism. The reason why the idea of American values were raised in the meeting was because the people in the room were pretty patriotic – and rightly so, be proud of who you are and where you come from even when you are more or less the same when compared to others. But what does corporate patriotism mean during a recession? Patriotism isn’t something CSR takes seriously but it is something we should look into when a company claims certain values and make claims of patriotism through advertising, lobbying etc. So the question was – what would a patriotic and responsible company do during a recession? Will they fire their fellow Americans? If yes, what does that tell you about their patriotism? Are they “fair weather” patriots who will say the right thing to get attention but then not back it up by action?

If you claim patriotism in some form then your actions should reflect that. Not only should you not downsize when you aren’t making a loss but you should go out of your way to help rebuild your country with the record cash you have in hand. Isn’t that what a responsible patriot will do? Use their resources to help their fellow Americans? Or does patriotism stop at getting people to buy a product made by an American company? Of course “made in” is a completely different story – and so are taxes. But that we’ll leave for another day.

Do I think companies acted responsibly during the recession? Some did and some didn’t. Those who let workers go when they weren’t making a loss lost their right to make the “greatest asset” claim. Don’t expect the same level of loyalty and commitment because you didn’t show it. Those who kept their cash when it could be used more effectively to rebuild the economy weren’t responsible citizens because they expected their fellow citizens to pick up most of the slack. Those who did everything to keep speculators, I mean short-term investors, happy weren’t looking at their long-term responsibility to their own company. Those who beat the drum to get consumer to buy their American products but didn’t put their own money into the game weren’t very patriotic or responsible.

The recession showed, and continues to show, us those companies who truly practice responsibility to themselves and society. Some were caught out while others shared the burden with the rest of us. The recession was good for CSR because it helped us define success of CSR in the toughest of conditions. Some failed and some helped us build a more responsible and profitable corporate world. At the very least the recession showed us the true CSR colors of companies. A good spin or substance…

So tell me – Were you a responsible corporate citizen during the recession? Really?

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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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