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?