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14 take aways from Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit USA

Last week I chaired Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit USA 2012.

A smaller version of our 12 year old European event, this conference represented our tenth year of holding conferences in the USA on responsible business. Here’s the agenda we ran.

You can see the agenda of our 2002 conference here. plus ça change…

Speakers included FedEx, Timberland, Bank of America, GAP, BT, Campbell’s Soup, Life Technologies, Calvert Investments, ABInBev, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch and quite a few others.

Here are my take aways from chairing most of the conference (thanks to Aman Singh for giving me a few breaks!)

1) ‘Good lobbying’ is now firmly on the US corporate agenda for the progressive companies. The question remains though, as to its effect, reach and funding, compared with very strong traditional lobbying efforts by industry.

2) Reporting take up is slow, but confidence is increasing that GRI is not a new rule book. See next point.

3) Lawyers are still a big problem. Both on reporting and collaboration aspects. CEOs and others are still very much influenced by legal risk.

4) NGOs are seen very much in two camps: visceral opponent or tame partner.

5) US firms without significant overseas operations are very parochial. AT&T and Verizon, for example, are very community and education focused. This makes sense for them given domestic reputation issues but they could be much more outward looking.

6) The business case for CR is being sold much better in some firms, as part of corporate strategy. For example FedEx lobbying on electric vehicle standards as part of a long term bet on electrification of transport.

7) ‘Shared Value’ is a popular notion in the US. Posibbly for four reasons:

A) It assumes (often wrongly) management of negative externalities.

B) Porter’s name provides confidence for CEOs and others.

C) The word ‘responsibility’ comes out of the paradigm through its usage.

D) It also feels ‘new’ and therefore innovative, even though it is not.

8) Cross-Industry collaboration is taking hold, thanks to Patagonia, GAP and Timberland in the apparel sector, but significant ideological opposition remains in other sectors.

9) SRI funds (sustainable and responsible investment) now have significant access to high level folks in places such as the Securities and Exchange Commission. This was not the case in the recent past. But it’s not clear how much they can change given the power of their opponents. The delays to the Dodd-Frank Act’s sections relevant for CR (1502 and 1504) are witness to this.

10) Measurement is tough. And must be considered carefully. Companies pointed out that things ‘change’ when measured, and not always for the best, and that incentives on certain areas can have unintended consequences for others. What is clear is that good measurement and incentives must be 100% per-company tailored to be useful.

11) NGOs are often still stuck in the past: Human Rights Watch has no plans at all to promote the Ruggie framework/principles, believing it is “not their job”.

12) US companies struggle to understand that the rest of the world is much more, what one might once have called ‘left wing’ than they are. Many executives are yet to grasp that simple FDI is not enough for some states, and that accountability for impacts is going to bite all foreign companies in the coming years in emerging markets.

13) Big financial players, such as Bank of America and BNY Mellon, are on the brink of a 21st Century business strategy, in shifting investment and lending criteria towards the new economy of efficiency, social innovation and green, but have a long way to go. Many executives and investors still equate green with socialism.

14) Social innovation, or areas of ‘shared value’ are starting to become product lines and business units. Companies such as Abbott are pushing for commercialisation of ideas which five years ago were seen only as philanthropic.

I taped some podcasts at the conference with Patagona’s VP of Marketing, Vincent Stanley, FSG’s MD, Kyle Peterson, and Mark Newton, CSR boss at Timberland.

I’ll post links to them on the blog in the next day or two.

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