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A Difficult Task: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Age of Social Media

Digital entertainment giant Sony and the non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) put one simple question onto the web in September 2010: “How can today’s technology help us to make the most of our planet’s resources?” It was the kick-off for their initiative called Open Planet Ideas (OPI). Participants from nearly 200 countries joined the journey to find an answer. In doing so, they identified more than 300 challenges our world faces at the moment. For instance, how do we turn our behaviours less resource-intensive? And how to turn waste into something useful?

On the Difficulties of Buying Our Way Out of the Consumption Problem

Many new products promise to address consumption-related woes. Yet many of these products fall short of promises, creating a false sense of absolution and at times exacerbating other associated problems. In order to meaningfully address overconsumption, these products would, paradoxically, have to actually reduce primary consumption.

Georg Kell Under Fire: Insights into the Global Compact

In 2012 the Global Compact raised a lot of attention, as the face of businesses at Rio+20, and consequently in the media.  The United Nations body sets sustainability principles for the world’s corporate elite. Only recently the Compact even held a workshop for journalists to be part of the Compact’s advocacy of sustainable business practices, writes Guardian’s sustainability evangelist Jo Confino.  A striking call to delve more deeply into the Compact’s strategy. The UN Global Compact’s head Georg Kell, an affluent UN diplomat with a slightly German accent, formulated in a New York Times article before Rio+20 what seems to have been the common denominator of business representatives at Rio+20, “Businesses are more advanced in sustainable development issues than governments are.”

A liberal market advocate, the co-authoring Kell wrote in the same NYT article in June, “Businesses don’t need governments to tell them whether or where to treat their workers properly, invest in their communities, or contribute to the broader social fabric from which they source both their customers and their employees.  They can — and should — do these things by themselves.”  On the contrary, in an earlier article, Confino wrote, “Kell is anxious to act because he recognizes that the corporate sector is moving far too slowly to deal with the enormity of the social and environmental challenges heading this way.”

With recent voices such as Patrick Haack, a researcher at the University of Zurich, arguing that the corporate misuse and disregard of the Compact’s principles discredited the Global Compact as a vital instrument for private governance, Kell must have put his colleagues at the Compact under pressure in preparation for Rio+20. Mr Haack conducts research in the legitimacy of global participant organizations such as the Global Compact that rally for transnational governance solutions.

Sustainability and Profit: From Trade-Off to Essence

Economic paradigms come and go. The seemingly endless debate between neo-liberals and –Keynesians in the past century provides a fascinating account of this. It shows that there must be words in economic debate other than last words – that no matter how certain an insight might seem in a particular instance, it will likely be proved wrong in the myriad combinations of circumstances that history inevitably yields. The essence of capitalism evolves around the centrality of profit, which in many ways is the very reason it has outcompeted its economic alternatives. Few would disagree with the central claim of University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman’s controversial essay on social responsibility (New York Times Magazine) that the paramount social objective of any business is to achieve profits within its legal constraints.

Business Schools Not Ready for Prime Time

Not Ready for Prime Time. Sustainability education in business schools is not ready for prime time. For two days, university faculty, eco-conscientious business executives and NGOs from around the world rubbed elbows at the posh Windsor Park Hotel in Rio de Janeiro and mulled over the problem of introducing environmental and social sustainability education into the curricula of business schools worldwide.  The UN’s third Global Forum for Responsible Management Education (PRME) coincided with the larger Rio+20 Summit preparations happening at RioCentro on the other side of town.  During the event, organizers and participants acknowledged that corporations are already taking a leadership role in the field of sustainability and that business schools have been too slow to adapt to this change.  Over the course of the event, no consensus among the participants emerged as to why management education programs are not embracing sustainability education.  The event seemed to be a confused, albeit well-intentioned call to action, ending in the inspiring but non sequitur launch of he “50+20 Management Education for the World” side-project with its own emotionally evocative call to action. 50+20

The aggressively creative and amorphous 50+20 was billed as a collaborative initiative between GRLI, WBSCSB and RRME.  John Cimino, one of the principle founders of 50+20 and a professional opera performer, sang an operatic rendition of Robert William Service’s “The Call” at the start of the group’s launch.  Cimino, who is also CEO of Creative Leaps Inc, a consulting company that trains business leaders and politicians in deeply divided places, stressed that the group’s primary objective was to “broaden the scope of what management education really means.”  Cimino and 50+20 plan to use creative and performing arts to “promote learning as a transformative experience…to nurture the leader in the human being and the human being in the leader.”  While PRME and the UN’s Global Compact have produced documents and mission statements with “many virtures,” Cimino says that 50+20 has a plan for action that is “bolder and goes farther.”  He sees the new group’s role as a “kick in the pants.”  This kick start is something the process sorely needs, but moving poetry and slickly edited launch videos may not be enough. Supply and Demand.

Corporate Respect, Set the Tone at the Top!

I am a straggler. Arriving after the start of an event usually raises a few judgmental eyebrows from the back row; however, tardiness is also an opportunity to display character. This is especially true when royalty is involved. Stumbling in late to an event with Her Majesty, Queen Silvia of Sweden, in Rio to open the Social Development track of the Global Corporate Sustainability Forum, takes special flair. The series of events inaugurated by Queen Silvia seeks to re-think corporate sustainability, positioning it on a new foundation of social dimensions and human rights.

Less Inertia and More Awareness, Please! – An Interview with Sandra Waddock

Sandra Waddock, the Galligan Chair of Strategy and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, was here at the Rio conference 20 years ago, and she will be part of it once again at Rio+20.  I spoke with her via Skype to ask her about the main challenges our society is facing and about her expectations for the outcomes of the conference. Sandra thinks that corporate and system inertia is a huge challenge that we need to address, and that awareness will play a major role in decreasing inertia and fighting social problems.

Ms. Waddock, with an amazing 50 pages curriculum vita, has not only broad experience in strategy, business, public-private partnerships, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and corporate citizenship, but also in system change and the issue of growth as a problem. She is the author and co-author of several books, the latest ones are ‘SEE Change:  Making the Transition to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy’, and ‘The Difference Makers:  How Social and Institutional Entrepreneurs Created the Corporate Responsibility Movement.’ Besides all of her achievements, she is inspiring, charming and has a great sense of humor. Less inertia

The points Ms. Waddock discussed about inertia were intriguing. Inertia is the resistance to motion, action, or change.

Another Brick in the Wall – The Transformation of Management Education

In 1979, Pink Floyd’s epic rock anthem, “Another Brick in The Wall” prompted many discussions about the state of primary and secondary education.  Similarly a transformation in management education today, which brings sustainability into full focus, is the subject of intense scrutiny.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Thomas Dyllick from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, the premier management school of the German speaking world, to talk about the state of sustainability in management education – listen to the podcast at the bottom of the post. Ups and downs in the sustainability agenda

As the engines of economic growth, private sector businesses play a central role in sustainable development.  Whether one sees them as part of the problem or as part of the solution, businesses are central to sustainability and sustainability is an unavoidable facet of the new, emerging global economy.  Business schools must therefore seriously consider how the concept of sustainable development is taught.  Despite some praiseworthy efforts, there is still a need to fully establish sustainability as a central topic in management education. To say that nothing has been done would be cynical understatement.  In the late 80’s, a few years after Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and David Gilmour crooned about students transformed into bricks of conformity, groundbreaking initiatives began reshaping the relationship between business, environment and society.  The economy is characterized by upturns and downturns and the same is true with regard to interest in sustainability at business schools.  During the dot-com bubble, in the 1990’s for example, the topic receded into the background. Today, however, the sustainability movement is gathering momentum again.

Corporate Sustainateens: What’s Next for Corporate Sustainability?

Can Rio+20 promote a rebirth for corporate sustainability? The towering palm trees in Rio’s Botanical Gardens set the stage for yet another event to discuss corporate sustainability in light of Rio+20, the “Sustentável,” organized by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (Brazil BCSD).  Maybe it was the setting, which inspired an elevated discussion on Business and Sustainable Development, that inspired the optimism that businesses can reboot their sustainability efforts.  Or maybe it was the realization that corporate sustainability is entering its teenage years and is starting to define itself and stand alone.  A famous Brazilian psychologist, Içami Tiba, calls it a second birth, when a child turns into an adolescent and strives to become emotionally independent. There are still many questions for corporate sustainability to answer in order for it to mature. During “Sustentável,” the scrawny teen was asked: How do you differentiate companies in terms of sustainability?  How do you measure corporate impact in the local sustainable development?  How do you settle the north-south differences in SD?  How do you increase prices in times of economic recession?  How to reconcile long and short terms? As a teen seeking identity, the first panel questioned the meaning of sustainability.

A Standard to Verify and Certify Water Stewardship: Interview with Alexis Morgan

A company or a water service provider may claim to be good stewards of water resources, but how can we know that they are doing what they claim? There is no international standard to verify those claims, although The Alliance for Water Stewardship is working on an international standard (the International Water Stewardship Standard),  as discussed in my earlier post. Alexis Morgan, who leads the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Water Roundtable on behalf of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has brought together various stakeholders in the formation of the standard.  He explains in this interview how businesses can no longer focus only on what happens in water use on a specific site.  Their view must extend beyond the site’s borders and include the watershed and whole supply chain.  He hopes that this standard will influence supply chains and investments, verify claims by companies and water service providers, and mitigate risks in both within and outside the borders of facilities.  Watch the full interview below.  


Would you rather listen? The audio is available as well:

Made in Marseille: Deputy Mayor Martine Vassal on the Forum Footprint

As Lindsey discussed in her earlier post, there are a number of online calculators which you can use to calculate your water footprint. A water footprint is the amount of water needed to produce the goods and services you use, and it is important to be aware of this number because it helps us reduce our water use.  But, what is the water footprint of an entire conference about water?  This was one of the questions I was able to ask Marseille’s Deputy Mayor, Martine Vassal, when I sat down with her to discuss her role in planning the forum as a board member of the International Forum Committe. We also discussed the ideas that went in to making sure the week’s events would leave as small a footprint as possible. It is difficult to accurately calculate the water footprint for an event the scale of the Forum, which is estimated to draw 25,000 participants.