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…
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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