Should sustainability have a seat in the C-Suite?

Some of you may recall the case study published on-line by the Harvard Business Review back in October, which posed the question of whether or not fictional company Narinex should hire a Chief Sustainability Officer.  The full Case Study is now available in the December 2010 edition of HBR (subscription required; text pages 133-137) (or try this version at Scribd, e-pages 135-139).

If you’re not familiar with the HBR Case Study feature, it generally involves a fictional scenario depicting some current business challenge and features the advice of two business leaders with subject-matter experience.  A few readers’ comments, distilled from the on-line commentary compiled previously, are included to illustrate additional perspectives.

Well, golly; the editors at HBR thought my comment “offers a valuable perspective,” and included an edited version of it in the December issue (text page 137 or Scribd e-page 139).

A few of my contacts have asked to see my comments, so I reproduce my full comments below (with the HBR-selected paragraph highlighted).  My comments will make more sense if you read the Case Study first!  Thanks for your interest!

Read my full comments on the HBR Case Study here…

Investor Relations: where capital meets corporate accountability

For some 250 years, responsible investing has been a key means of aligning our influence with our values.  The Investor Relations function is squarely at the nexus between the strategies and performance of the company and the primary leverage point for stakeholder expression of sustainability goals.  What does this mean for the Investor Relations professional?

Perhaps the very earliest occurrence of socially responsible investing took place in 1758 when the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, issued the first of a series of denunciations of the slave trade, advising its members to “avoid being any way concerned, in reaping the unrighteous Profits arising from that iniquitous Practice of dealing in Negroes and other Slaves” and “endeavour to keep their Hands clear of this unrighteous Gain of Oppression.”

John Wesley, founder of Methodism

Around the same time (between 1744 and 1760), John Wesley, an English preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, delivered his sermon entitled The Use of Money.  You may have heard the saying, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  That is John Wesley, paraphrased.  What it doesn’t capture, however, are the boundaries he drew around the first of his three rules: “gain all you can.”  Wesley advised his followers to gain but without hurt to body, mind, or soul, of either ourselves or our neighbours.  He spoke of unhealthy work environments, cheating, lying, anti-competitive behaviour, the sale of anything that may impair health, and what he called “sinful trade”.  He advocated honest industry, diligence, continuous improvement, and best practice.  Religious institutions have been at the forefront of socially responsible investing, or SRI, ever since.

In the last five decades, we have seen a steady rise in interest in SRI.  [For a brief history of SRI, see these entries on Wikipedia and About.com.]  We know environmental, social, and governance (or ESG) issues are not new to investors.  So what has changed? Read on!

Collaboration as Competitive Advantage

As I discussed in an earlier post, social media have enabled a shift in information and communications flow from a traditional mass-media “push” model, in which a company may craft and deliver a message to its stakeholders (often a different message for different stakeholders), to a “pull” model, in which company and stakeholders are on a more even footing, and what is being said by one may be heard by all.  In this “pull” model, stakeholders themselves define their own information requirements and actively seek out the sources, connections, and networks that will meet them.

While this might seem scary to some, it also represents one of the great opportunities that social media offers:  collaboration.  If you view each one of these voices not as a threat but as an opportunity to engage and to learn, you can leverage social media to add value to your business.
How? Read on!

How not to legislate Corporate Social Responsibility

Today in Canada’s House of Commons, Bill C-571, a Private Member’s Bill (that is, a Bill proposed by a Member of Parliament, rather than the government), had its first reading.  Bill C-571, referred to as the Trade in Conflict Minerals Act, is intended to deal with corporate practices relating to the purchase of minerals from the Great Lakes Region of Africa (which includes Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania).

While the trade in so-called conflict minerals is an issue worth action, this Bill is not the answer. Here’s why…

Privacy breach reveals lack of ethical integrity

It was revealed this week that highly personal information about Sean Bruyea, an outspoken critic of veterans’ affairs in Canada, was included in a 2006 briefing note for a federal cabinet Minister (Psychiatric report of veterans critic inserted in minister’s briefing: documents, Toronto Star, September 21 2010). Apparently, the briefing note was seen by several senior bureaucrats. In addition, Mr. Bruyea’s file was accessed by hundreds of people, who shared Mr. Bruyea’s private information with hundreds more, including political staffers.

With few exceptions (relating mainly to legal compliance), Canada’s Privacy Act prohibits the use and disclosure of personal information without the consent of the individual to whom it relates, except for the purpose for which the information was originally obtained. In this case, the private information was originally collected to determine Mr. Bruyea’s eligibility under a disability program, but appears to have been used to undermine Mr. Bruyea’s credibility as a policy critic.

The mis-use and disclosure of Mr. Bruyea’s personal information is an appalling breach of privacy that should concern us for several reasons. Read why here…

The CSR debate: what are you saying?

I had the pleasure this morning of taking in the spirited webcast, “CSR and the Role of Business Today”, hosted by public interest communications firm, Fenton, and featuring a group of A-list CSR advocates and detractors.  The list and biographies of panelists, and a link to a video of the debate, are available here.

Throughout the debate, there were many fine points eloquently made by the panelists, and I encourage you to view the video of the debate, if you were not able to watch it live.  (Even if you did see it, you might get more out of it watching a second time, as I did.)  In particular, if you are a CSR practitioner or advocate looking to strengthen your understanding or articulation of the context of and business case for CSR, you’ll find some good material here.

I won’t reiterate all the debate highlights (you can check the Twitter feed, using the hashtag #CSRdebate, for the play-by-play), but I would like to consider the anti-CSR case in more detail.  Specifically, I found the arguments made by Professor Aneel Karnani and Chrystia Freeland disingenuous; let me explain why. Read on!

A new “standard” is needed for claims

Twice in recent months, I’ve read about companies getting into hot water over their handling of damage claims in the wake of accidental events.

First, BP was taken to task for using waivers and spill settlement agreements that limited the right of volunteer oil-spill responders and coastal residents to sue the company (BP told to stop distributing oil spill settlement agreements, CBS News, May 3 2010).  Then, in August, similar complaints were leveled against Enbridge, following its pipeline spill in Michigan, alleging residents who were filing for damages were required to sign a “full and final settlement release form” that discharged liability against the company (Enbridge denies allegations of coercion, Globe and Mail, September 1 2010).

In both cases, the companies argued the forms they were using were “standard” forms (BP admits “misstep” over oil spill claims waivers, Reuters, May 3 2010).

I understand the need for the companies to establish a robust claims process and to protect themselves from illegitimate and unreasonable claims.  However, in these cases, the “standard” of care was inappropriate and unfair. Continue reading

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