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Archive for the ‘public responsibility’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement - ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

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