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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.

Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of  better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.

The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.

Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…

The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.

The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.

It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.

The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)

These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.

Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.

The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?

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Exxon not paying US federal taxes and kids smashing their new iPad. That made for a sad day of reading. But thank you Intel for saving my day with some real leadership in stakeholder engagement.

Exxon Pays NO US tax

It took me a while to try and figure out a snappy headline for this one but I think this one works best – plain and simple… Exxon paid no US federal tax in 2009. I must admit that I am a bit shocked by this. Is it even possible for a very profitable US company to get away with not paying any federal tax in the US? Well, the original source is from Forbes so I take it as true. I’m not going to go into details on their anti-climate change position and funding of dubious organizations and positions. Neither will I discuss how this non-tax paying bit makes their pro-carbon tax look a bit like playing politics. And I’m not going to mention how this might be a slap in the face of the US when taking into consideration the subsidies they received. Or that they really should not complain about the tax rate in the US anymore. Or maybe they are doing that on behalf of the lobbyist they hire…

However, I am interested in how this reflects on their broader responsibility as a supposedly proud American company. Look at this line from the Forbes report:

Exxon tries to limit the tax pain with the help of 20 wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that (legally) shelter the cash flow from operations in the likes of Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. No wonder that of $15 billion in income taxes last year, Exxon paid none of it to Uncle Sam, and has tens of billions in earnings permanently reinvested overseas.

So Exxon (or any other company for that matter) reduces their federal taxes by hunting for the best shelters hidden on nice little island. Can these companies ever be judged as responsible companies if they go out of their way to not to pay taxes in their country of origin or where their headquarters might be? It seems as if those who have the means to get away with not paying taxes tend to get away with it and those small businesses who drive so much economic activities are more inclined to own up and pay up.

It’s when I read headlines like these that I get a bit despondent and ask whether there is any line out there we can agree on or is it just a free for all? Fight, argue, lobby – it’s all fine. But let’s agree that if you are going to fight, argue and lobby then you should at least pay your taxes and not run from your responsibilities. Does your home country and your responsibility towards your fellow countrymen mean so little to you that you will do everything to run and hide the money?

It’s just a bit too much, isn’t it?

The Empty Generation?

Continuing on this sad reflection on society – let’s talk about American teenagers today…

It seems as if everyone under the age of 21 waited in line to get hold of the latest cool Apple product – the iPad. (Full disclosure, I want one…) It’s the new must-have Apple product. The iPad brings us so close to having our device big enough to use and small enough to carry around easily. A few Apple tweaks and we should be there in a few years or months. Anyway…

A bunch of teenagers just managed to capture everything that is wrong with consumption today. They bought an iPad and then smashed it to pieces. Why? “It was just something to do.”

Again I am dumbfounded. They bought something that costs more than most people in this world make in a year and then just smashed it to pieces? So that they could put it on YouTube and have a few laughs? No consideration to the impact of making the product.

We live in a society that consumes just for the sake of consuming. And we get so bored of consuming that we purchase just to destroy. Out of boredom.

Companies can create products that can help society. But kids (or grownups) with too much money will prove that even the best products can be wasted by people who are a waste to society.

Intel (Sustainability) Inside

I couldn’t end with two stories on groups who just don’t get it – so here is a feel good story to make up for it.

Intel agreed to a shareholder resolution requesting the creation of a Board Committee on Sustainability. Harrington Investment submitted the same proposal last year but it got shot down. They tried again this year and Intel agreed with the proposal. The easy part will be to applaud both Intel for establishing the Board Committee and Harrington Investment for sticking to it and get the job done. That’s the obvious bit of good news. But there is more.

What I see as the real leadership is Intel showing that listening to stakeholders is something they actually believe in. Last year they didn’t agree but they sat down and considered it again. Instead of having the typical knee-jerk reaction that most companies have to activist shareholders, Intel listened and considered. And they supported the proposal because it was the right thing to do for them and for the shareholders and stakeholders. Big thumbs up to Intel for bringing a real maturity to shareholder proposals.

Sustainability inside.

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I’ve seen this add a few times on my telly – a group of employers asking people to write to some politician to get him to vote against the proposed health care reform. I’m not going to give this specific group any more free time but the NY Times has an article on the broader topic of businesses using their dough to stop health care reform. It’s irritated the living hell out of me. To those businesses and business associations behind these efforts, would you mind answering the following few questions to help me dig deeper into you as a responsible company and/or business association?

1. Could you please spend this money on providing your workers with decent health care?

I am always amused by companies being able to spend so much money to lobby for a cause they so strongly belief in but not always spend the same amount of money on a good cause – helping their workers get good health care in this case. It’s not unique to health care though. Many companies spend millions of dollars to keep their interests riding high. Sometimes this is a good thing because it has broader societal and/or environmental benefits as well. For instance, a company that I admire but that will remain nameless used the need for health care reform as their first time dipping their toes into the lobbying field. In this case they were (and remain) worried that the spiralling cost of health care will undermine one of their fundamental commitments – providing all their employees with decent health care. They lobbied because their commitment to their workers could be under threat in the long-term. Good on them. But so often companies do not lobby for something that can be seen as a broader societal good. Vested interests and an irrational fear of change drive their lobbying agendas instead of putting the money towards addressing those issues that requires attention. Do remember that most governments do not write policies and legislation purely for the fun of it but rather because something is dramatically wrong. Lobbying against it will not solve the problem. It will only extend the pain until it becomes unbearable and then we all pay. Please ask yourself a very simple question the next time you want to lobby on another “anti” platform – Am I being part of the solution or not? Come up with solutions instead of being anti change. Being negative might be easier but it is not a sign of a responsible company. Either in CSR and sustainability or business in general. Business thrive by making things happen and finding new solutions (through products, services, operations etc.) Unfortunately the general business approach to lobbying undermines this fundamental business principle.

2. Could you please stand up and name yourself?

Why do so many companies hide behind alliances and business associations? They are first to claim they are so green or they do so much for their local communities but when it comes to the lobbying stuff they tend to be quiet and hide behind an association where they can huddle without being seen. Why? Is it because you are not 100% convinced that you are right? Or that you do believe that maybe society will see (now or in the future) that your lobbying position is actually not in their interest? In this case it is very convenient to hide behind an alliance because your own workers might actually see that you support something that is NOT in their interest. You’ll notice that these ads are by employers and not by employees. Why? Because employees will benefit from these changes while employers are arguing that they won’t. Convenient isn’t it? It’s easy for the employer to stand up and take a stand while hiding behind a wall of secrecy called “alliance”. Guess what? Most US employees do not have the same luxury. Their alliance is the union and most employers fight the unions with every ounce of power they have. So it is okay for employers to be free to join any “union” they want but not for the employees. Double standards if I have ever seen one and not a sign of a responsible company or business association. It’s not only health care though. It’s almost every issue where society or the environment might be threatened by the status quo. Climate change… Why are some companies sponsoring critics to argue against climate change without making any scientific arguments of their own in public? Maybe because being open and honest about what you believe in might not be popular. No one ever said transparency will be easy but that is the cornerstone of a responsible company. Own what you believe in please. Don’t be ashamed of what you believe in. Come out the closet and be loud and proud of who you are even if others might not agree with you. That is a sign of responsibility.

3. Could you please find a name that works?

The organization that fronts these businesses and business association pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – get a snappy name no one can argue with… “Employers for a Healthy Economy.” As if anyone who do not agree with them are arguing against a healthy economy. It’s just greenwashing with another name. Claiming one thing when really you can’t claim this to be unique or even true. It is misleading and does not deal with the issue you are tackling. It would be like a single car manufacturer starting an alliance called “Manufacturers for Safe Cars.” Duh! Please use a name that is relevant and true and not something that plays into populist hands or misleading. Misleading people and false advertising – not signs of a responsible company or business association.

4. Could you please keep better company?

A good way of judging whether an initiative is looking at who are the alliance partners. Many stood out but one in particular… the US Chamber of Commerce. I won’t go into details of how many companies have left the US Chamber of Commerce because of their out-of-touch position on climate change but their position on health care reform is interesting to say the least. As a conservative lobbying association one would predictable expect the Chamber to be against health care reform – but they go further than just being against reform. The Washington Post reported in November 2009 on how the Chamber “proposes spending $50,000 to hire a ‘respected economist’ to study the impact of health-care legislation … would have on jobs and the economy.” That’s the nice part – nothing wrong with a study to inform us. But what if they already decided what the outcome should be? In the email exchanges they made their intentions clear and assumed the outcome of the study by saying that “the economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document.” Nice… Sounds like climate skeptic type research to me. They sure know how to pick their partners don’t they? I wonder if they used this research to back up their claims in those ads on television? It seems as if some people just don’t get the basic methodology of sound research. Responsible companies and business associations do not predetermine the findings of their research. They do their research and then make up their minds.

5. Could you please refrain from lying?

My point above on question 4 should clear this up for you. Did you solicit a study that had to fit their “facts” into your already defined position or did you do a proper study? Anyone who starts a sentence off with “In fact…” generally tells the opposite right after that statement. A responsible company and business association will not lie. It will tell the truth even if it isn’t what they wanted to hear. Furthermore, a responsible company/association will not have research targeting a predetermined outcome. Any study initiated and/or supported by a group with a vested interest should be taken with a pinch of salt. It reeks of the “favorite hamburger/coffee/pizza” stuff you see on television. Really people, stop treating us like idiots. If you fund a study or a survey and “tweak” questions to ensure the “facts” support your position… Not a sign of a responsible company or business association.

A responsible company and business association will be transparent, open and honest even when they are wrong. More importantly, a truly responsible company will not join an alliance or association who can not display these principles of responsibility. Are you hustling the truth or are you a responsible company? Your choice. I’ll decide where to put my pen and money once I get an answer.

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“Sharing is a special way of caring…” That line comes from that purple dinosaur – Barney. It was sound advice for my oldest daughter when she was still a little thing having her first baby crush on Barney. Barney helped us teach her that sharing what you have is a special way of showing people that you care. Unfortunately Barney isn’t that big anymore and we have to do most of this teaching all by ourselves when it comes to my little one. She get’s the message though as we pass along the Barney wisdom from generation to generation. But not everyone remembers this piece of wisdom. Especially not in these times when banks and other financial institutions are hit hard because of how they pay out bonuses.

Bonus payments will always be a tough nut to crack and will always leave someone unhappy. Each business is different and different people play different roles depending on the company in question. Sometimes it is a difficult pill to swallow when a “generic” senior executive receive a bonus that feels less grounded on the broader effort of everyone at the firm. But I have seen enough companies with dynamic leaders who make the difficult decisions, led companies into growth or out of difficult circumstances, and who owned up to their responsibilities to know that not everyone is truly equal in any company. Even though we would love to think everyone plays an equally important role in a company the truth is that some people play a leadership role for a reason and they should be compensated for that.

However, emphasis on compensation. Each person should be paid according to their role and responsibilities. Bonuses tend to be a broader reflection on how a company and specific department performed, the specific role that an individual played in that performance and how long a person has been with a company – performance, effort and loyalty. It should not be about one single thing – “My department did the best” is not a good enough argument for super bonuses if the company as a whole failed. That’s the problem most people have with the bonuses paid at certain financial institutions. Salary as compensation reflects the role and responsibility and bonuses tend to reflect performance, effort and loyalty (of course these three will also have an impact on long-term salary and promotions.)

What is a fair bonus? Like I said, each company and industry is different. And, to tell you the honest truth, the discussion here is really a theoretical one for me personally. I’ve never worked at a company where the bonus structure has been an issue. It’s always been fair and transparent. It’s also not something that has been a key issue for me from a CSR and Sustainability perspective. My questions from this perspective would typically be about transparency, governance, whether CSR/Sustainability goals played a role in establishing bonuses, how it impacts CSR/Sustainability, employee relations etc. Never really about the actual bonus structure. Maybe I should but there are more important things to focus on from a CSR and Sustainability perspective – and I haven’t worked with banks or other financial institutions that often.

But I do know fairness when I see it. And sometimes this fairness blows me away. This line says it all: “all of them – from the chairman … and the managing director … down to shop assistants and shelf-stackers – get the same percentage payout.” Hang on a minute. You mean they share the bonus pot equally? That’s a bit of a shocker. Must be some small little business somewhere or a bunch of trade unionist running a lunch-time cafeteria, right? No. It’s the John Lewis Partnership. For those who don’t live in the UK, they are a large company (just over $11bn in sales) that owns leading UK retail businesses – Waitrose, John Lewis and Greenbee.  And by “they” I mean all 70,000 permanent staff. That’s why they are called the John Lewis PARTNERSHIP. They all own John Lewis. Still, it’s a pretty novel idea to share bonuses equally.

Most people applauded this but some people commented in The Guardian piece that the actual amount each one got paid should have been the same. I think that is missing the point that each one gets compensated according to his or her role and responsibility and the percentage bonus payment is therefore also a reflection of this. We do, after all, still live in a world dominated by a more or less free market.

I am impressed because it shows more than just a Barney culture of caring. It reflects the view that we either fail together or we succeed together. The essence of a partnership and the essence of the John Lewis ownership structure.

I don’t think most companies can do it the John lewis way. Maybe those owned or bailed out by governments should implement such a John Lewis-styled bonus structure. But the majority of companies are not partnerships and have different masters. The John Lewis example is the extreme but more companies can learn from the basic principle and work to ensure that their bonus structure reflects the basic values – all employees work together to make a company succeed (or help get the company through a tough time) and they should therefore be treated equally. Maybe not exactly equal – my rule of performance, effort and seniority should play a differentiating role. But at the very least there should be some level transparency and equality built in to ensure all good work gets rewarded. Of course it also sends a strong message to all John Lewis workers – let’s pull together to get through the tough times as we will all benefit from an upturn. This way everyone feels ownership of their working world and believe that as long as they work hard and do their best they will be treated fairly. And the outside world will judge the company on how they treat their workers – as equals or not? If it’s greed – is it driven by a top-heavy greed or equally shared? If it is truly about equality and everyone having to do their best for the company – is it reflected in the bonus structure? I think that’s the part that many of the banks and financial institutions just don’t get.

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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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For those who don’t believe in evolution – stop reading. No wait! It actually doesn’t matter. My question will stay the same. Whether you do it in the name of God. Or Allah. Or Yourselfishness. Or the Big Emptiness. Or communism. Or the Dalai Lama. Or Ganesha. Or the dog down the road. It doesn’t matter. The question stays the same. 

Do you know what a privilege it is to be here on earth? Think about it. You are so damn lucky.  Think about how you somehow managed to pick the one little ball of rock that can sustain life. Billions of years ago. A Big Bang. It took a few billion years for enough dust particles to stick together. And eventually form earth. A few lost comets and debris crashing into this little ball provided the stuff needed to start good old earth. Water. H and little bit of O. And… And the other stuff like hum… metals and chemicals needed to eventually hang around to build this blue looking rock hanging out in space. And it started swinging. Swinging away around the sun. A touch of atmosphere. And it gets to grips with itself – gravity. And it stays just far enough and close enough from the sun to maybe sustain life. 

And it did. Life came to earth. Think back to what it took to get you here. After a few more years. A billion plus. Something stirred. From deep inside… hum… somewhere. And life was born. Not much of a life. Not as we know it. But it stirred. And eventually formed some algae. That at bloody last turned into something with eyes and fins. Got sick and tired of staying in the water the whole time and eventually crawled out. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to monkey and then man. What a ride. 

Think about it. Your ancestors. From the algae that didn’t get burned. To that thing in the water that didn’t get eaten by our early cousin the shark. Crawled unto land and somehow managed to make it. Not get squashed by big old Apatosaurus. Hid from the saber-toothed tiger while hanging out in the trees. Dodged  bullets during wars. Each and every single day. For billions of years. Your ancestors got the lucky breaks. Always at the right place at the right time. Never got caught flatfooted. Never choked on a banana or a flea picked from our less lucky uncle Earl. Remember him? He “invented” the spear by accident. But it got stuck in his head. In on the one side and out the other side. He didn’t make it. No. Our ancestors always got away. For billions of years. And here you are. Drum roll please. Ta da!  

 We are damn, damn lucky. It took so much effort just to get us here. All the breaks you could ask for – we got it. Talk about being privileged. Talk about knowing the right people. Having the right genes. And here we are. So what are we doing? What are we doing? 

 What are we doing with our lucky break?  

We sit in front of the idiot box and watch stupid stories of murder or love or “reality”. We drive our big fat cars to fit our big fat ego’s. We eat hormone induced meat because we can’t bother to hunt or even know where our food comes from. We sit in our air-conditioned offices and watch the world go by. All the time trying to sell something. To make more money. Selling ourselves. Selling our souls. Selling lies. And we go home and have no time for those we leave behind. We don’t look at them and show them how to make sure we stay lucky. How we can make this little rock last a little bit longer. To make those who will come after us have a chance the way we got our chance. And that’s the good part. 

We fight wars. We kill in the name of whatever. Or Whatever. But in truth we murder and kill in our own name. It’s us. Not Him. Or Her. Or It. We seek war before we put out our hand in friendship. We will rather fight than try to live. We breed hate before we nurture love. Kill before caring. We would step on that algae that made us before we nurture it to life. Thank god Mother Earth does not have our temperament. She doesn’t care. She just does. We care. We care about us. And not others.  

We gather things. Things we don’t need. We live for greed. We stuff our faces and then send the rest down the drain. Garbage disposal. We don’t share with those who might need it more. We don’t think that the scraps on our table that gets thrown away can feed a family that comes from our less lucky uncle Earl. And we live for the need for more. More money. More houses. More cars. A better phone. An iPhone. A better laptop. Better cable. Virtual life on the net. Tweeting on Twitter. It’s us, us, us. More, more, more. We just do what is good for us. And not others.And then we blame. We blame the others when we can’t look in the mirror. When we are so addicted to our lives, but not to life. Addicted to wanting more. And war. And the lies we tell ourselves and to others to make it okay. Okay for ourselves. Because we can’t look in the mirror. What are we doing? 

Why can’t we evolve? Move forward. Laugh at uncle Earl? Not be like cousin shark. Be a little more in it together? 

Why don’t we do our best to make this little world better? To care a little bit more? Why don’t we look after each other? Why don’t we stop the killing? And the dying? And the hunger? Why don’t we know that we are all the same? In the same boat. That it doesn’t matter where you live. Or what you believe. Because, in the end, all we have while we are here and before we die is us. Just us. And our little rock. Why don’t we know that war and hate and blame and greed and… don’t solve problems? That love and friendship and life and caring and sharing and… and… That these are the things that we can leave behind. The lessons to help those who come after us. Because what we leave behind is what will define tomorrow. When we are the ancestors. When our descendants will look back and laugh at how funny we looked. Like Grandpa Algae. 

We are lucky. Always have been. And even luckier that we can’t see the future. And that our ancestors can’t see us today. What would they think? What would they ask? Papa Algae won’t be impressed. 

What are we doing?

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