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Posts Tagged ‘values’

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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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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This happened a few years ago – not in my current company by the way. Anyway… I was sitting in the office of this very senior dude from a massive company. One of the biggest in the world. They said they needed some help on their corporate social responsibility strategy. Fine, that’s the kinda stuff I do – help companies find strategies that improves their impact on society and the environment. My approach – shared by many? Making sure it makes business sense as well. And tie it to their brand. That’s my view of sustainability – getting companies to do good by making it impossible for them to stop doing it because it’ll hurt the bottom line. Blah, blah, blah… Anyway, enough of my philosophy or job – that’s for another day. Back to the office and the dude… 

So we sat there and he was telling me how much his company cares for the world around it. You know, the usual spin of how values means everything to them, that being responsible is at the core of their business and that they have been doing the right thing way before it was so popular. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So I listened. And listened. And listened some more about all the wonderful things they have done. I think he must have realized I was losing some concentration after about 30 minutes or so and decided to switch tactics. He stopped and said, “But don’t believe me. Let me tell you about this guy we have in one of our California stores. They had this big fire/landslide/flooding (can’t actually remember which one) down in his area and he just jumped in and helped the local community. He organized everyone in the store to collect things and help those who needed help. Our store was the beacon of hope for the whole community. All because that one guy decided that he could make a difference because of us.” 

Now that was a great story. He should have left it at that but I he pushed on. “Wait, let me get hold of the guy for you.” And he jumped on the phone to call someone. Now the person who answered the phone had no idea I was in the office. He just heard the voice of the guy I was talking to. Let’s call him Mr F and my guy Mr B. So this was the conversation: 

Mr B: “Hey, Mr F! How are you. Listen, I need some info that I hope you can help me with.” 

Mr F: “Sure. Shoot.” 

Mr B: “Remember that guy who worked in the California store who organized everyone to help out the local community back during the fire/flood/landslide?” 

Mr F: “Yeah, I remember him.” 

Mr B: “How can I get hold of him?” 

Mr F: “Sorry B, can’t help you there. We had to fire his ass because he just wanted to help the people in his community the whole time. I mean really…” 

Mr B: “Click…” 

I won’t go into details on how he tried to worm out of that one! Let’s just say that I had a very good chuckle afterward and enjoyed watching him try to get out of that one. It didn’t work. I never did work with that company… 

You see, there are many companies out there telling us how great they are. Many of them are. And I have been lucky enough to work with most of them. First as a trade unionist with the workers at the factories, then as a campaigner at Oxfam, also as a development worker and so many other jobs I’ve had. I’ve been damn lucky to have done this across the globe – Africa (where my heart lies), Europe, China, US – still waiting for the Maldives to give me a call though. Anyway… Nowadays I’m on the sharp edge – the business side. I help companies do better by doing good. Not charity but doing business better and in a more sustainable way. Tying people, planet and profits together in harmony. (Some plucking of the harp strings to set the mood please.) 

Although I give companies the benefit of the doubt because I am interested in affecting change, I am also enough of a cynic to know that not all companies do the right thing because they believe in it. They do it for different reasons. I don’t really care what the reason or reasons might be. I want change and will take any angle that works to achieve that change. I keep my focus on the result we all want - help address poverty, improve human rights, get a handle on diseases, stop environmental degradation, start reversing or containing climate change etc. The reason why companies are willing to do better is of less interest to me; I am focused on the end goal – improving on their impact and helping them be a more efficient company in the process. Everyone has their own reason and we have to work with what we’ve got. 

I’ve also realized that very few companies actually go out to do harm. No one wakes up in the morning thinking of how they can nail the environment or the people they affect. Most of them just try to run a business and in most cases don’t realize the affect of their actions until it is too late. They are just people trying to do their job to the best of their abilities working with the limited information available to them. They need people like activist to point out their mistakes. And they need people like me and those I work with to help them correct what they do or improve on their impact. The best is of course when they call us in before the er… stuff hits the fan… 

Before I start, full disclosure. I have worked with most of the companies I am going to mention in these “The Company You Keep” posts. Sometimes as a campaigner against them and sometimes working with them to make the world a little bit better. But, like I’ve said, I’ve worked with other companies as well. No naming them. That won’t be fair. But the companies I will mention in this regular blog (The Company You Keep) stand out as my favourites. Stand out because I found something inside them that I didn’t always believe that companies can have. Values. Values that are similar to my own. Values we share. And values that most of those working for them also have. Deep rooted values. 

Oh make no mistake. None of them are perfect. They make mistakes. They continue to make mistakes. But that’s not the point. We all make mistakes. I do. No matter how much I would love to say that I am perfect and always live my values in a way that never impacts anyone negatively – I know it is not possible. Bull I say. We live and therefore we are damn well guaranteed to make mistakes. For instance, you think we can be environmentally friendly? Haha! Nice one! We are human, it is in our nature to have a negative impact on the environment. The only time we’ll have a positive environmental impact is when we push up daisies. But it’s what we do to limit our impact and what we do to try and leave the world a little bit better that matters. Every single one of us will have an impact and each one of us will make mistakes along the way. Now imagine putting thousands of people into one company and ask yourself how the hell can you in any way not have someone make mistakes – even when you try your best? It ain’t gonna happen. 

I’m more interested in intent. What’s the intent of the company? Are they purely driven by profits or do they feel neutral towards their impact (i.e. don’t really think about it) or do they believe their business can actually be a force for good on all three levels – people, planet and profits. The mistakes can be rectified when the intent is right. Let’s not get stuck on individual mistakes. Let’s correct them and move forward to better things. 

And it’s easy to shoot your mouth off from the sidelines. This is wrong and that is wrong. This company isn’t perfect and that company isn’t perfect. Point me to someone or anything that is perfect and I’ll show you a liar. More importantly, come up with some practical solution while you shoot your mouth off. Criticism is easy – solutions not so easy. 

My clients know this story as I use it often… 

Life is like my marriage. 80% of the time we agree with each other. 20% of the time I acknowledge I am wrong! But the point is that we should focus on the 80% that defines our relationship. The 80% that is good. The 80% of where we share a vision and a life. Too many times people focus on the 20% and they end up divorced. That’s the same with companies. I focus on the 80% and we work together on the 20% to make the 80% even stronger and better. Anyway, that’s a blog for another day – my 80-20 rule on life. 

I believe in these companies because we share values. Because we share a common vision of a better future. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll damn sure give it a good shot before they give up. Actually, I hope they will never give up. Because we all lose if they do. These companies are companies who do the right thing because they truly and deeply believe that values is a central part of who they are from every angle – people, planet and profits. It’s not one or the other. They believe in this triple bottom line. You get the picture. They do the right thing because that is who they are and because it is the right thing to do. The world would be a much better place if more companies were like them – both in values, value and the way they operate. 

Ask yourself a simple question. Would the world be a better place if all companies acted like them? 

Don’t think I am some sucker who just fell for their little love story. Remember, I campaigned against some of these companies. I’ve been a trade unionist and an activist. I have a high sense of smelling er… something wrong from a mile away. And I’ve worked too closely for too long with most of them to not know who they really are. 

There is a snag here as well. I can’t tell you everything I know about them. I can’t tell you all the good reasons I like these companies because I work or have worked with them. I can’t tell you about the difficult business decisions some of them have taken in the name of “doing the right thing”. I can’t tell you any of that because I work with them. But everything I do mention can easily be found on the web with a little bit of research – you go fill in the gaps. Talk to other people. Open your eyes a little and look as deep as you can. Search for some soul. Not perfection – just values and soul. Sorry I can’t tell you everything. I guess you have to do the one thing I never do – trust me on this one! 

So here we go. The first of my favorite companies in the world. In no particular order. Let’s just start… 

Timberland 

One of the coolest CEO’s I have ever met – Jeff Swartz. I follow him on Twitter and I’ve had the pleasure and honor to meet him and work with him. Really inspiring guy. And a real no nonsense kind of guy. And he is always willing to speak his mind. He actually called out a anti-climate change “activist” in a blog post a few weeks ago. A real inspiration for his whole company. But let me tell you the first time I heard this guy speak a few years ago. 

I was attending a Social Accountability International (SAI) conference. They focus on ensuring strong independent verification of working conditions in factories all across the world. Yes, they are activists and a highly respected group. You know this is true when not everyone likes what they do. Anyway, they asked Jeff to be the key-note speaker. 

In he came. A lot younger than what I expected. And, as luck would have it, damn handsome as well. (How come some people really have it all! Cool company and good looks AND such strong values!) Anyway, so Jeff stood on stage and started talking. The first thing that hit me was how this guy didn’t sound media trained. No notes to speak from or slick delivery lines. It actually looked like this guy believed what he was saying. Now I didn’t know much about Timberland up to then. I liked the brand and their boots and knew they weren’t a crap company. I knew my fellow activists liked them but I never asked why. I didn’t particularly care because I wasn’t that involved in their industry much in those days. 

And Jeff told us about how he approaches worker conditions in the factories. You see, he has kids. They help him stay grounded and remind him that those working in those factories most likely also have kids. And he asked himself, “If my kids were the kids of one of those factory workers, how would I want them to grow up and their parents to be treated.” Because, you see, it all trickles down to the kids in the end doesn’t it? That was insightful. He didn’t see the workers as parents only but he made it personal by putting the face of his kids there. You know why this was so impactful on me? Because that is what I do. I see those kids in Africa and everywhere else and I ask myself – what if that was one of my daughters. What would I expect from someone like me? It drives me. And it sustains me. 

Many years later I had the opportunity to work with Jeff and Timberland. I remember the first meeting. I can’t repeat everything that he said but I can repeat what is public knowledge. I asked him why his company does all this CSR and sustainability work and why it matters that his company always do the right thing. It’s my standard values test and sets up my bullshit meter. 

He looked at me for a while and then just said a very simple line. “Justice through commerce.” He truly believes that we can make this world a better place if we have companies that see their responsibility to the shareholders as intertwined with the responsibility to society and the environment. A company can bring positive change through the way it acts. Companies can actually create the environment where human rights are respected if they accept that responsibility and use their influence and power in a positive way. 

And he also told me that he is just a simple bootmaker. His grandfather started the company. Making boots. And his grandfather taught him how to make boots. And he wants to know that every hand that touches that pair of boots had as good an experience making these boots as those who will eventually wear them. And that the environmental impact in making those boots are as soft as when we wear them hiking in the mountains. So simple yet so powerful. “Justice through commerce.” 

Jeff, love you dude. Glad we have CEO’s like you willing to speak out and be loud. And I don’t care what you say – or what your kids might think… You are cool and have the privilege of wearing those awesome boots day in and day out. We could do with more people like you. You inspire us to be better than who we are. Just a bootmaker? Yeah right. And I am just an African… Ubuntu to you! 

But it goes beyond Jeff. Yes, he drives it forward and sets the vision. But the company is full of people driven to do the right thing. You should see them pushing and driving a new agenda each day. Crazy as hell but everyone going forward. Always wanting to take up a new challenge and set new standards. And the sad thing? You have not heard much about what they have done. Wish you could. You will be blown away by some of the things Jeff and team is doing and have been doing. From creating an industry leading eco-label that tells you about the environmental and social footprint of the pair of boots you are wearing, to the cool community projects they have in cities across the world, to engaging with their stakeholders (activists included) four times a year around quarterly reporting, to really get to the heart of challenging issues, to speaking out against inaction in dealing with climate change to… you name it and they do it. Too much to mention and Jeff and his gang will remind me of all the things I’ve missed – the good and the bad. 

The best part? They make one damn fine pair of boots. Good to look at and even more comfortable to wear. And one that can take the knocks and be even more comfortable to wear the next day. A bit like the company itself. 

So as I sit here looking at my old worn Timberland boots (yes I have them on right now) and know I will wear them again tomorrow with my new Timberland gloves the wife bought me, I know one thing about Timberland. Proud. Damn proud of them. And they are as tough as hell and as comfortable as soft leather should be. Just perfect to kick some butt on the way to greater “justice through commerce”. 

I know they are worth a shot. I know they are worth rooting for. I know that the world will be a better place if other companies share their values. And I know the world will be a better place if more companies challenged themselves as much as they challenge themselves. 

So tell me. Are you proud of the company you keep? 

Made to kick ass...

 

_________________________ 

Note: Just in case anyone thought otherwise. No company approached me or paid me or asked me or engaged me in any way to write about them. I am just one damn lucky guy to have had the pleasure to work with these companies in one way or another. And I’ve watched them closely and liked and loved what I saw. So I decided to write about them. Here is the other thing. I work for a company that I admire as much as these companies. But it would be unfair to write about them. That would be sucking up to the boss. Yes, we are large. But we are privately owned. And the owner? One hell of a guy. One heck of a family. You wouldn’t know he was the boss if he walked in. But you will when you see how we react. Why? Because we admire him. Admire him for doing the right thing. Always. I work for one hell of a company. They look after us and empower us. And they give me the opportunity to be who I am AND work with some of the most awesome companies in the world. Hell, they know about me as a blogger and speaking my mind no matter where I am. And they encourage it and support it. Now that is empowerment. Tell me. Can you say what you want and be who you are where you are working today? I can.

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