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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve always been sceptical about CSR rankings and ratings. Partly because there are just so many of them. It sometimes feels as if we have a ranking and rating system for every company. Just find the one that fits your needs and away you go! But this also underlines a deeper problem with rankings and ratings – is it even possible to have a ranking or rating system capture all the differences and diversity amongst businesses?

Citizen IBM had a good piece on how CSR Rankings Can Be Improved. They capture some of the key problems I have – from the needs to acknowledge the differences in industries to the need for continuous improvements to full transparency in the criteria used. But I don’t think they went deep enough – and I would like the scratch the surface a little bit more.

Firstly, as Citizen IBM mentions, the differences between industries should be acknowledged. But it goes deeper than purely the differences between those who manufacture and those who offer services. And it’s these differences that makes it even more difficult to take rating systems seriously. Let’s remove the obvious difference for a moment – let’s exclude for the sake of argument services companies and only focus on companies who manufacture.

Even within manufacturing the differences are just too steep to make a single standard rating workable. Most rating systems looks at the impact of the manufacturing process – environmental impact, workplace practices, financial performance,  governance etc. Most companies within manufacturing can be judged according to these, right? Well, just hang on for a minute there…

What most of these rating systems focus on, measure and rate are the impact of the process and not the impact of the actual product delivered by the manufacturing process. Let me give you an example, it is possible for a tobacco company to have excellent CSR practices in their manufacturing process and therefore rank better than say a pharmaceutical company. But the actual product delivered by the pharmaceutical company is vastly different than those from a tobacco company – the one contributes to the health of society and the other do the opposite.

Now it will be easy to exclude tobacco companies – and many do. However, the basic principle remains. The extremes are easy to differentiate – and we can exclude tobacco and arms manufacturers. But what about comparing the products of an oil company to a pharmaceutical company? How do we judge the end product and the impact of that end product? Especially when we start bringing in the idea of sustainability – leaving the future world in a better or no worse place. How do you rate a product that positions us better for the future against a company who serves an immediate need but at a high environmental and sustainability cost? How do you rate a software company who connects sustainable solutions to a company whose software is used for warfare? The differences in what the products deliver becomes complicated and makes comparisons complicated and almost impossible.

Even within a single industry it is complicated and problematic – how do you differentiate between an energy company that produces only oil to one that only produces solar or another “green” energy? And what about a traditional oil company spending more and more on alternative energy? How do you judge the future impact and value of the product or service?

The approach to ratings also undermines a key development in CSR over the last few years – finding the opportunity of mutual responsibility or shared value between the company and its stakeholders (or society at large). Companies are increasingly seeing CSR as a way to create new opportunities that will be beneficial to both the business bottom line and the needs of society. But the approach of rating systems doesn’t allow for this to be reflected because they focus on the impact of operations and not the business model and approach to CSR. You can (and will) therefore have companies who practice CSR the old way (ticking boxes, compliance etc) have a higher rating than companies who seek new ways to create product and service solutions that will benefit both society and the business itself. Too many ratings take a “tick the box” approach instead of looking at innovation, opportunity, mutual responsibility, societal benefit etc.

And it goes even deeper than that…

The drive towards a common standard has another unwanted impact – individual criteria might mean a company have excellent rankings on some but fail on others. Especially those areas where their major impacts are. Let’s say a company rates highly on governance, philanthropy, financial performance and the environment but their major impact is actually on human rights. And let’s say this company then operates in countries where child labor or forced labor are fine. The fact that they have great rating in all but one will most likely give them a good rating overall. But they fail in the area that matters most to their specific company as it intersects with society. Again, the standardization of ratings therefore fail to acknowledge the area of major responsibility and impact of the company.

That’s my biggest problem with ratings and rankings. They focus too much on the process and too little on the impact and value of the actual products and/or service delivered and those areas of major impact and responsibility. A single standard rating and ranking to compare all companies cannot capture these differences adequately. Rankings and ratings go for the lowest common denominator and fail to truly rate those who benefit society today and tomorrow and fail to acknowledge the differences in impact between different industries – or even different companies within an industry.

Frankly, I don’t rate ratings and rankings that much…

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Is this where your savings are?

I have to say that it is one of my least favorite corporate practices – mountaintop removal or MTR. I just don’t see any sustainable benefit from it. And it’s pretty ugly too. So no surprise that people continue to target the industry for some activist scrutiny. 

Their latest target is JPMorgan Chase. Young activists are targeting JPMorgan Chase for underwriting “environmental Armageddon”. Harsh words but that’s in the nature of activism. Although I am interested in the MTR issue this specific campaign raises another long standing interest of mine – defining CSR and Sustainability for the banking and financial sector.

The recent economic meltdown raised serious questions on the role of banks and financial institutions and how they serve society. I’m not going to go there as it is well documented and an ongoing discussion. But I would like to propose we think of banks in a similar way that we look at other companies – via their value chain.

We ask of companies to be responsible by looking at the impact of their business operations as well as throughout their supply chain – upstream and downstream. It’s not good enough for a clothing company to only look at their own operations, they now have to have guidelines and systems in place to ensure their suppliers don’t commit human rights violations. Today we go even further by asking companies to also look at the environmental impact of their suppliers and to favor those who have a better environmental impact.

Of course we also ask companies to make sure that they take some level of responsibility for their products once they leave their stores. We expect computer manufacturers to offer some level of recycling and we want bottled beverage companies to take responsibility for the bottles they sold us. Heck, some cities and states help us (and the companies) to recycle these goods.

In short, we ask companies to make sure their products are manufactured in a responsible way and that they take responsibility even when they no longer ‘own’ the product.

Banking works the same way. We don’t want banks to make money through theft or money laundering and we don’t want them to fund terrorism or offer services to dictators or organized crime. That’s the easy part…

Why do we not expect them to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their services? Banks make investments that could threaten our future through global warming possible. Should they not be held responsible? Should we not measure the environmental impact of their money? Or rather, the environmental impact of their “investments”?

For me it goes beyond activism as we can then start measuring the impact of banks and financial services. We can make judgements on the values of these companies based on the impact they have – directly or indirectly. And the nature of CSR and Sustainability is to adapt to make it work for each industry. Maybe this is the way we can start figuring out the social and environmental impact of companies offering services – look at the impact they result in.

Maybe then we’ll stop funding everything in the name of profit. Or at least know what a responsible and sustainable bank looks like.

Do you know where your investment is going?

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