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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

I know… I don’t blog enough around here anymore. Okay, I don’t blog around here at all. Watch this (empty) space. I will be back soon and regular. In the meantime, I do blog over at CSRWire more regularly. See below the latest one over there where I looked into my sustainably made crystal ball and imagined the strange (un)sustainable world of tomorow.

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No, this is not another “looking at 2014” piece. I am more interested in looking a little further ahead. The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and there are larger trends changing the world in ways we can hardly imagine.

Imagine, for example, if we somehow had better insight into how transportation will change across the world over the last 50 years. Or how manufacturing will shift away from the U.S. and other developed countries or how the brands we love dissolve into nothing more than grand design houses with limited manufacturing capabilities. Not to mention how technology has changed the world – wish there was an app for all that.

I’m more interested in the mega trends that will shape our world over the next 50 years. What will drive the fundamental change in the way we source, manufacture, interact, communicate, build relationships, sell, transport etc.? In short, here are four mega trends that I believe will change the world of sustainability in a way that makes most of what we think is important today silly and obsolete.

Well, we’re done with the silly season after all…

1. Everything Is Personal

The rise of the individual over the group has in itself become a group activity. The marketplace of people has become so crowded that people are fighting to stand out. We have moved from the Pepsi Generation to the Me Generation. From consumers to individuals. This is already challenging the way brands interact with people, as people want to be known as Jane, Dick and Sipho – the individuals. They want brands to conform to them and not the other way around.

Brands who want to survive must find a way to engage in a conversation – a dialogue – where they are informed as much as what they inform. In other words, get ready to lose control of your brand to save it. As the new Edelman brandshare™ study shows, brands who ignore this new sharing revolution do it at their own cost. By losing control and allowing your own brand to become individualized you will empower individuals to love you, connect with you and advocate on your behalf.

At the same time, you will also lose control of what your brand looks like. Conversations with consumers won’t stop at Likes. They will want to be part of the design process. In many cases, they already are – go design your own Timberland boots or Nike’s today.

This mega trend will also influence how companies implement sustainability across their value chain. As technology and transparency make the world smaller, consumers will be driven toward making everything personal – and leveraging the power to know where their purchases came from, i.e., manufactured, sourced, farmed, etc. It’s already possible – we can trace coffee, wine, water, cocoa and even diamonds to any specific location today. And this is already playing out in the marketplace with sales of fair trade coffee outstripping the sales growth of traditional coffee.

As individuals design their own products they will also have the ability to pick the ingredients and/or materials, enabling them to make ethical choices from the source right through to disposal. As a brand, your ability to control your supply chain will thereby become even more important – because your consumer will drop you if you can’t give her the right goods to make your product.

2. Two Classes

Income inequality is growing faster than ever before. The rich aren’t just getting richer – they are getting richer at a rate that is bad for the U.S. and global economy.

Simply put, income distribution in the U.S. and in the world is unsustainable. This isn’t an ethical issue but a sustainability issue. I am not making a judgment call on whether the rich should or should not own as much as they do or whether CEOs should get paid as much as what they do – I am merely looking at the impact of this fast growing income inequality. The impact hampers economic growth and, as the fall of the Roman Empire showed us, huge income inequalities are bad for countries. Today, the U.S. has a worse level of income inequality than the Roman Empire.

The long-term solution? Either get rid of it or find a way to ignore it.

The problem with the rich in Roman times was that they could not find a way to cut income inequality. They gave a little bit away but never did enough to change the underlying systemic problems and reasons for income inequality. The same is happening today in the U.S. and the world.

Universal health care gives the poor(er) a little bit of breathing space but does not challenge the nature of the economic system and the underlying challenges: an obsession with fast growth, short-term investors addicted to high profit margins irrespective of values, too-big-to-fail industries and companies rewarding high risk takers, and a reward system that encourages investors and business leaders disconnected from long term business and societal needs.

This growing income inequality isn’t just a widening of the gap between the rich and poor but, more importantly, changing the nature of the middle class. The middle class has always been the bridge of hope between the poor and rich but now they are carrying an economic burden beyond their means and fast losing pace with the rich.

The new class system, unfortunately, isn’t between rich and poor but rather those who benefit from the system and those who “hang in there.”

While clearly unsustainable, there is little that can be done within the current economic system to alleviate this trend. The result: people will become even more entrenched in their class, defining their needs and wants according to their economic status – an acceptance of life rather than striving towards a new economic class.

However, this financial divide will also create a different kind of economic and social divide. Where you live, eat and play; what you buy and watch; and who you interact with, will increasingly be decided according to where you fall in this economic divide, creating a need for economic and social systems that can cater to both societies. You already see this with where people shop, what they drive, where they eat, what they watch, buy etc. Expect this trend to increase even faster over the coming years.

Examples can already be seen in the fast growing sharing economy as growing income inequality creates a new economic model that encourages sharing resources for financial gain – aided by developments like the growth of social media and the move toward cities. Uber, Sidecar, AirBnB, etc. allow anyone to start their own business and make it personal – but I bet their target audience isn’t those who buy Ferraris or who stay at the Four Seasons.

It is, in fact, a combination of all these trends that is leading to a major shift in how people are adapting the capitalist system to address their needs – but away from the big business model. And regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the impact will change the very nature of business in years to come.

3. 3D Printing

Like the stories of rock bands, the instant sensation of 3D printing has been 30 years in the making. While, the discussions today are about immediate controversies such as printing guns, the real disruption with 3D printing will be the ability to print stuff we use every single day – it is already printing apparel and footwear and food, and even human organs!

Imagine the future in 50 years when we will be able to print everything we need from our homes or local 3D print locations. Our food, clothes, furniture, even replacement organs and everything in between. The challenge is not the technology but the delivery of the “ink” to the printers. Traditional transportation methods – trucks and trains – won’t be able to keep up with the demand, likely leading to delivery via pipes and cables, much like gas and water today.

While 3D printing has the potential to have significant impact on infrastructure development and transportation, we are decades away from fruition. Today’s infrastructure is not geared toward delivering the world of tomorrow. Expect a transformation of cities and how we live and move around, which will lead to enormous changes across supply chains globally.

With people printing their Levi’s or Timberland’s or even the Big Mac at home, raw materials will be able to skip the middleman – the manufacturer. In other words, 3D printing will complete the move from brands controlling both design and manufacturing to becoming nothing more than design houses.

4. New Generation Gap

The last mega trend is the way social media is changing how we experience information and form relationships. There is a new generation gap between those who see new technologies and social media as an additional way to communicate and interact and those who see it as the only way to communicate.

Social media does not replace personal experiences or the importance of building physical presence to start a relationship – it enhances those relationships. It is an additional way to stay connected with your “network” no matter where they are. And, of course, another way you can consume.

But the younger crowd experiences this new social world differently.

For them the new technology is a natural extension of how they make friends and interact with the world. A snapchat is as good as a handshake. The need for physical interaction is not necessary any more to build trusted relationships anymore.

This is a huge shift in how humans have developed relationships and organized themselves. The suburb of tomorrow has gone digital – a place where people go to be with their own community. And then they step outside (if they really have to) to go to work. Social media, like little else, will change the landscape of tomorrow completely. Mega cities just need to connect to us via wireless. We can order cars through a sharing app. Work is a video away.

In other words, social media confirms the move to the personal and will challenge how we organize our social, economic and political systems.

So what will the world of tomorrow look like? Will it be a world of selfish individuals printing their ideal partners at home in their connected mega city apartment? Or will it be one where the individual is celebrated as making up this new connected world where we share what we can eat and print?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Is to make money right? Absolutely yes, but let’s not kid ourselves - there are rules. It’s not as if you can just do what you want to do. The “free market” might sound like a pretty neat idea but that only exists in theory. If markets were truly free we wouldn’t have all the subsidies, incentives, trade limitations etc that almost all companies benefit from or lobby for in some or other way. All markets are regulated to ensure that they serve a purpose. A social purpose that goes beyond shareholder gains only.

Do companies seriously want to debate this? Then give back your subsidy. Drop the demands for more favorable trade rules. Your business is about making money within a set of rules. Live with it even when all those rules don’t slap you on the back and give you money.

Some rules are written into law and you have to comply to them. But some rules are unwritten – the social contract you have with society as a whole.

Let’s put it in another way. We have laws regulating individual behaviour. These laws did not come from nowhere. Before they became written law, they were the unwritten rules we had as a society to organize ourselves and somehow get us to live in some sort of pact – harmony being a dream only. Before we wrote down a law that said – don’t kill, murder etc – we had that as part of the societal contract. It was a societal contract governing our behaviour. One that organized how we lived with and amongst each other and the roles and responsibilities each of us had towards each other and ourselves. We “gave up” our freedom to pillage and burn to gain from living with each other. A societal contract that defines and creates society. One that helped us move forward as a specie instead of going off driving individual gain only. There are and were many of these societal contracts to help drive cohesion. Stealing, murder, property rights, trade etc.

It’s the same for business. There have been unwritten rules of engagement – the societal contract to ensure that they serve a broader positive societal role and not purely out for personal gain. For example – Rule one, don’t sell me snake oil. And eventually that made it into law. Don’t sell me food that will kill me. That eventually became law. All of these regulations are there to underscore the societal contract that existed before the actual law was written.

And like any law, it became more complicated the longer we lived together as a society. Those who don’t value the societal contract will try to find new ways to break it to stay within the written law or even change the written law. But because they are breaking the unwritten societal contract, we need to rewrite and bring in new written laws. Take killing for instance. It was pretty simple, you shouldn’t kill someone else. Well, what happens if it was by accident? Or in self-defense. Oops, let’s expand on that law a bit. And it becomes more complicated each day as people and companies try to find new ways to break the societal contract by finding ways to undermine the written law. (I wonder if these ‘complications’ with writing the societal contract into law were the first example of lobbying as well?)

Business cannot just operate the way it wants. It serves a societal need whether it is bringing the goods we need to us via a retail shop or provide us with the fuel we need to keep us warm or just get around. It does not have the freedom to do what it wants to do for the sake of itself. It must serve a purpose (real or perceived – thank you advertising) and play within the written and unwritten rules. You can’t exploit workers for the benefit of your bottom line. You cannot dump toxic materials into the water streams used as drinking water just because it is better for your bottom line. You can’t knowingly sell a product that will kill people even if it does help your bottom line. You can’t lie to people about what your product does just to increase your bottom line. You can’t use your bottom line as the sole reason why you do something – legal or illegal. That bottom line is not always in the interest of the bottom line of society – to live and prosper.

The unwritten rules and social contract with society is based on trust. People trust that you will do the right thing. It’s why people tend not to like government regulating behaviour – it not only creates the perception that it limits freedom but it goes against the principle of trust. And, of course, government will argue that these laws are there to serve the societal contract and ensure (consumer) protection from those who refuse to work within the spirit of the societal contract. The societal contract is based on trust. But lobbying behind their backs to “get away with it” because of greed or any other reason breaks that trust. The trust is broken when companies lie about their impact and when their impact is not beneficial to society – today or tomorrow. Especially if the company does it on purpose – knowingly. When you break that trust you break the societal contract. Then you cease to have a reason to exist. It’s not in the interest of the societal bottom line.

So, the business of business is to make money but only within the confinements of the societal contract – written or unwritten. The next time you lobby for something that is in the best interest of your company or you hide your true impact or your falsely advertise the benefits or impact of your product or service, do ask yourself if you are breaking the unwritten contract that you have with society.

Do you serve a purpose that is beneficial to society? And please refrain from drinking the Kool Aid. Think before you drink. Consider the truth before you answer. Because you are also a member of our society.

The business of business is to serve a societal purpose. We love it when you make money while doing this and we see this as the reward we provide you because you are one of us and doing something good for all of us. Now go and have a purpose. A real one.

So the next time you use the line of “the business of business is business” or argue against CSR or sustainability – please think again. Your responsibility might lie with your shareholders but your licence to operate lies with us. The people. CSR and sustainability is our way of defining the rules for you. We don’t expect you to like it but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Live with it. Implement it. Embrace it. Or maybe we’ll just have to revoke your licence.

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Last week I focused most of my The Mythmakers: The end of CSR. Again. on Porter and Kramer’s shared value  or CSV. I did mention Alberto Andreau’s argument that Shifting From CSR To CSV Isn’t The Solution and that the truth and future lies in Corporate Sustainability. I ran out of space and didn’t really give enough attention to Andreau’s argument. What follows are some parts of the original post that landed on the cutting room floor.

As I stated before, Andreau’s idea of Corporate Sustainability is just another way of practicing CSR. But I also want to focus on the three main points he uses against the use of CSR:

1. CSR sends the wrong message: Firstly, breaking down the individual words of the concept is problematic. But there is nothing wrong with expecting business to have a responsibility. The idea that business have some responsibility is as old as business itself. In some cases this is regulated and in some cases not. And remember – before regulations there was nothing. Those companies who had annual financial reports was seen as “responsible” before it became a requirement. And same for those companies who stopped employing slaves. All of these were early CSR practices and then became requirements. It’s not the wrong message – it’s only the wrong message if we think that business have no responsibility towards society. Regulatory or not. Remember, business is in an unwritten social contract with society – do no harm and at a push try to do some good (where CSR comes in). Business can argue that they should be able to do what they want and how they want to but the truth also lies in the reverse – society need not support you or even allow you to operate if they don’t like you. If you argue that business should be able to do what they want then you should also live with the fact that people should protest and target you because that is their same right. We in CSR believe that it is not an either/or question and that business and society need each other and both share a responsibility towards each other to ensure mutual benefits.

The “corporate” part of CSR tells us that this is about business. It is a business approach – one that should add value to the bottom line. “Social” refers to the societal part of the business. Business operates as part of society and have a social obligation – as stated above. And the “responsibility” part refers to the rest of the argument I make above. The combination of the three concepts tells us that this is about business finding opportunities and areas of co-responsibility in their interactions with society – and that they also have a responsibility towards society to add value. And society includes all stakeholders – shareholders, consumers, employees, communities, suppliers etc. All different parts of society. We so easily focus on the “responsibility” part of the definition and easily forget that it is a “corporate” strategy that includes opportunities to add value (money, returns, increased sales, new product innovations, cost savings etc) to and through values. Don’t get stuck on the last word – see all three and how they interact.

2. Information overload: I agree that we have too much information today. But it is this same information that continues to drive new innovation in how we practice CSR, and how we live our lives in a world of information overload. The challenge is rather that CSR is developing so fast as a discipline that we can’t always keep up. Imagine if the concept of business was only started in 1970 and went through all its various changes and implications in 40 years. And really, CSR only took off about 15 years ago. That’s a lot of changes in a short period of time. The information overload is the wheels of CSR spinning at a 1000 miles a minute. It is daunting but it is exciting at the same time. We are in the middle of a new way of doing business – and we are at the center of that. Hang on – this is a wild ride.

3. Absence of global standards: Yes and no. Yes it will help if we have a few more global standards. But there won’t be a global standard for CSR. As I explained earlier – CSR is too complex and you can’t have a single standard for this complexity – only for some of the parts. And, we are finding new and innovative ways to implement CSR each and every day. How do you standardize innovation? Lastly, not even “business” have a single standard out there – only some of its parts and some guidelines at best. We don’t even have a single standard for financial reporting in the world – and that is such as basic business practice. What chance of a global standard for CSR then? Maybe our expectations are just too high on this front.

Of course there are some very specific challenges regarding his proposal to use Corporate Sustainability. Firstly, the addition of “corporate” does not address one of his own problems with the corporate part of CSR – “the term ‘corporate’ serves to instantly exclude every institution outside the realm of corporations.” I don’t think this is much of an issue but Andreau raised it as a concern regarding CSR so the same goes for Corporate Sustainability. Why is it okay for him to use it in Corporate Sustainability but not for us in CSR? Secondly, he argues 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. I don’t agree with him that CSR has lost the battle against “philanthropy” and “social action”. Only in the eyes of some who practice it inconsistently or who haven’t kept up with the ever evolving world of CSR practices. Heck, just because some businesses don’t practice business in the right way doesn’t mean we should question business as a whole, does it? There are corrupt business out there; businesses who exploit workers; business who sell snake oil etc. Should we now say that all businesses are bad and should be dropped just because some practice it in the most harmful way? Same goes for CSR – some have practices they call CSR that really isn’t CSR. We should be diligent in raising our concerns with those companies who abuse the term – not abuse the term ourselves. And arguments where we question the concept of CSR only underlines this confusion. Instead of defending CSR against abuse and misunderstanding, we compound the problem by proposing new concepts and terminology and creating even more confusion.

All the additional 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.”

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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 is election time here in the USA. To state the obvious – It’s an interesting time to be in the US. It’s even more interesting to watch how business behave during these election cycles. This election is especially interesting from that perspective as the two main parties are very divided on a range of social and economic issues. The emergence of the Tea Party and the right-wing in America begs the question – how do business lean during this election? And what does it tell us about their values?

For me this election raises the question of whether business have managed to really live their values through the political support they give to any specific party. The Republican Party is pitched by most as the business friendly party. The one that will look after the interest of business more than the Democratic Party. Of course this judgement is based on the value that the Republican Party will provide business compared to what the Democratic Party has to offer. Lower taxes, less regulations etc are all seen as Republican Party strengths – and all aimed at the value bottom line of business.

 But what about the values bottom line of business? How does their support of one specific party reflect on the values they claim to stand for? A few examples makes me question whether business takes their values as seriously when it comes to politics as their value bottom line.

Firstly, a number of companies are rightly proud of their ranking as good employers. And some of them are very proud that they are constantly ranked  by the Human Rights Campaign as Best Places to Work. The HRC lists the top businesses that support equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Now this is where I am slightly concerned that companies overlook these values when it comes to their political support. Do they take into consideration whether a specific political party of group (like the Tea Party) or a specific candidate support these values they uphold as important to their business? I dare say that not all of them do. Too many of the companies listed on the HRC Best Places to Work are also big supporters of candidates and political parties who do not believe in the equal rights for all their employees. I question whether employees are really the “greatest asset” of a company if that company is willing to sell the rights of their employees for a few dollars more to the bottom line.

Secondly, how about climate change? If your company believes that climate change is real and is a real threat to the long-term sustainability of your business – how can you justify supporting an individual or political group who do not believe that climate change is a threat that needs urgent attention?

This second point comes close to the value argument. The first point of equal rights for your employees is mostly a values argument but climate change is about both values and value. It affects your business sustainability and therefore the value you offer as a business. Maybe the world becomes grey because the business makes a decision between short-term value and long-term value. Tax breaks, subsidies, less regulations etc are all perceived as adding short-term value while climate change is something that will starting to hurt the business in 50 years or so. Like a frog being boiled…

I think that some of the support businesses give to Republican Party candidates and the party itself more out of legacy than anything else. They have always done so and will continue to do so out of habit. The truth is that both parties are pretty business friendly compared to most of the world. The value differences are more marginal than people would like us to believe. For example, businesses are cash flush at the moment, profits on Wall Street is up etc – all under Democrat rule. But like anyone who has a long-standing habit or addiction, businesses will support the Republican Party and candidates “because that’s what they’ve always done”. Not a compelling reason but still a reason.

For some businesses it is a clear-cut reason. If they believe that clean energy or a drive for more renewable and alternative energies will hurt their business they will fight against it. Guess who fights renewable energy more than the other when it comes to political parties? But what about that company who believes that the environment is key to who they are as a company? If you are in the outdoor industry then mountains mean a lot to you. People use your products to go and enjoy nature. So how would you feel if someone mines away that mountain top? Not so good. And how about being in an alliance with a company and/or party who supports mining that mountain top? Be careful who you form alliances with even when you don’t mean to be in a formal alliance. You are who you support and who your candidate supports. You can’t shout for greater action on climate change one day and then support a party or candidate who stands for the opposite. Stick with your values or stick with your value – if you believe they are separate. But please don’t claim to have CSR or sustainability in your DNA and then take actions which completely contradicts your statement.

There are many more of these examples. Companies in the construction industry – are you supporting the party who are providing cash to rebuild America or are you supporting those who say that they should never have spent this money in the first place? Retailers – are you supporting those who want to provide continuous tax breaks for the middle class or those who insist that the richest get the biggest cut or no one gets a cut?

Look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are willing to trade your values in for a perceived value. History is littered with the easy way out – take the money and forget about the rest.

I don’t have a problem with that. Each company will decide what is best for them. Just do me a favor – don’t sell me CSR snake oil stories of “it’s in my DNA”. Embrace who you are and live it. Be true to yourself no matter what that truth might be.

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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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Partnership anyone?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try another example… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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