Responsible Business Summit USA – a few thoughts

On June 1-2 we hosted our Responsible Business Summit in New York.

I chaired/moderated about 90% of the conference over two days. Here are a few thoughts on what I picked up from the event.

I should say here that I feel slightly fraudulent writing this: After a long absence from the US I turn up for a week and dare to have an opinion? That would be a fair complaint I suppose. Nevertheless here goes:

1) Sustainability is all about green right now in the US. This was reflected to the point where commentators from the floor were asking for more discussion on social issues.

Our agenda for the event had reflected that which 25 executives and general trends had told us: Green, or greener, is king in the US right now, alongside standard community work.

This is no doubt for myriad reasons: The US historically, aside from community and philanthropy work (not to be underestimated of course) has focused less than Europe on issues such as human rights, the social contract and general license to operate. This has deep cultural and legal roots, but of course also because whilst in Europe business is viewed with suspicion, there to be tolerated as a means to an end in the US business is to be celebrated, almost to the point of being an end in itself.

None of this is of course new. No doubt another reason for lack of difficult social issue debate in US CR is the subjectivity of the topic: one mans freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, so to speak.

US managerial capitalism, defined as it was in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, loves data and efficiency, neither of which are easy to definite on tough social issues such as supply chain labour standards, living wages and so forth.

That’s not to say there’s not a robust debate about those areas in parts of the US, but its perhaps correct to suggest that it’s not top of the boardroom agenda when the CEO is briefed on the opportunities presented by business sustainability, particularly looking globally.

2) Conferences on corporate responsibility are not robust enough in the US.

I tried to ask the various CEOs and corporate managers for a bit more detail on their work. It wasn’t aggressive, but mildly challenging in places. About 30 attendees remarked to me that this approach is unusual in the US. The impression I got is that most events have very friendly moderators who don’t push speakers much on detail or challenge them. That’s not really our style: it makes it so much more interesting if you have a debate about tough questions.

3) NGOs are not campaigning hard enough

Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network aside, there’s not much happening in terms of the kind of campaigns that made CR a priority some years ago. Lots of big, corporate style NGOs are doing corporate partnerships but there’s not much real pushing going on.

4) There’s a slightly stunned political environment and a lack of street and citizen protest

The polarization of politics in the US has stifled political debate around sustainable business innovation. That seems clear to me from my conversations with many folks in New York and Boston in the last couple of weeks. There simply isn’t the level of public protest we see in Europe beyond very small groups, to push politicians to take issues seriously. Since the BP disaster public pressure has died down to a large degree. Obama’s record on the topic of CR encouragement has been patchy at best. The 2010 Frank Dodd act has driven some interest in supply chains, anti-corruption enforcement actions are up, and the Californian supply chain slavery disclosure law may have some impact, but clearly CR has not been much on the government agenda and probably won’t be until 2013 when elections are over.

6) Incentives are not where they need to be, as elsewhere

Companies are looking at incentives cautiously. We had a lot of debate about how senior and operations managers can be paid to hit sustainability targets. Akzo Nobel use Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes performance for bonuses, whilst others make performance reviews and bonuses part dependent on hitting internally set targets on aspects of sustainability.

7) Greenwashing ain’t what it was

There’s still a lot of self certification by companies of course, but the green marketing hysteria that enveloped both the US and the UK seems to have died down for now.

Overall I was encouraged by what I saw and heard at the conference: Times are tough for consumers, politics is a mess and the upcoming election won’t do much for US CR policy. But companies, some of them at least, are busy getting on with the job of becoming greener. That’s not the step change we need if the science is right but it’s something. We’ll cover more on social issues in future conferences in New York in early and late October (reporting and supply chain conferences)

Standout impressive companies from the conference: Interface, Timberland, Akzo Nobel, Mars Chocolate, Xerox, P&G and BT. That’s not to say some of the speakers from the other firms, including Bank of America, were not very impressive, they were.

I taped podcasts with CEOs/Senior execs from Mars, Interface, Timberland and Xerox, I’ll publish them next week when Ethical Corporation’s long awaited new website finally goes live.

In the meantime there were lots of tweets from the event with stats and nuggets, a lot of them by me. Here’s the link to check them out.

1 Comment

  1. Hi there – trust that you are well and glad to see not much has changed from your side. Hi from Brussels.
    Regards Chalks Corriette

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