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25 September 2017

Wake Up Sheeple!

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I nearly choked on my Weetabix this morning when I saw the Guardian was running a splash on The Ethical Case Against Wool. "This I've got to see," I thought, and lo and behold G2 had an article from a vegan activist saying that as some sheep are treated roughly by shearers "on amphetamines" we should boycott wool.

Which begs the question "What are we going to wear, then?" I mean, if wool's out, fur and leather don't make the ethical grade, cotton is usually produced using huge doses of pesticides and large amounts of water, polymers are made from fossil fuels and don't biodegrade... what does that leave? Sisal? Ooo, itchy!

Sarcasm aside, we're going to have to realise that our presence on Earth will always have an impact and not always a good one for our fellow creatures. That doesn't set us apart from other animals – if you are a sand eel then that cute puffin looks like a mass-murdering bastard. And while I would never condone unnecessary cruelty to sheep or any animal, we're disappearing up weird dead-ends if we set out ethical bar so high that a natural material such as wool doesn't make the grade.

And, while I'm quite happy for this activist to boycott wool if that makes her happy, a big splash of lunacy on the front of a national newspaper like this doesn't help the case for moving to broadly more ethical supply chains.

 

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26 September 2016

Bradley Wiggins and the Spirit of the Law

braddley_wiggins_2011_criterium_du_dauphine_stage_7There can't have been a more disconsolate figure than that of Bradley Wiggins, almost certainly the greatest cyclist of our generation, on the BBC yesterday explaining the conditions under which he (legally) took a steroid injection before his 2012 Tour de France win.

You are probably aware of the backstory – a group of Russian hackers have taken revenge on the sporting world for the banning of many of its athletes for illegal doping by releasing the medical records of others, in particular the therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) which allow athletes to get treated with banned substances for particular medical conditions. And Wiggins' name popped up with a TUE for a steroid which has long been linked with cheating in the sport, taken at a particularly convenient time.

The hackers have certainly won this one as Wiggins and his former Team Sky have long made a virtue of a zero tolerance to doping. In his 2012 ghost-written memoir Wiggins claimed to have a no-injection policy, but now claims he was referring to intravenous injections, not intramuscular ones (a bizarre distinction as illegal doping can involve either or both). And only a few weeks ago, Wiggins lambasted women's world champion Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) for missing doping tests.

On the other hand, the TUE system approved the dose and the 40mg dose he took is the standard medical injection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I can't find precise details of how much the dopers took, except that it can be 10-100 times as high (I don't know how much you have to take to make a difference to performance). If the system is wrong then change the system.

Well, at the end of the day, Wiggins is not being judged in a doping investigation (because he didn't dope), but in the court of public opinion with the mainstream media as prosecutor in chief. And, as many disgraced politicians will tell you, that court looks to the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, and it looks as if Wiggins and Team Sky fell short of the expectations they created for themselves.

There are obvious parallels here between sporting ethics and business ethics. In both, the media will be sniffing out any perceived hypocrisy and the public will not give the subject the benefit of the doubt. Transparency can go a long way, particularly by qualifying any broad statement of principle. And, it goes without saying, being seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk is all important.

By all means set yourself a high ethical bar, but you better clear it by a wide margin of error.

 

Photo © Petit Brun, used under a creative commons license.

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13 June 2016

How good are you, really?

business angel

Cracking column by Eva Wiseman in yesterday's Observer on the trials of trying to live ethically – self-coruscating about the blind eye she turns to ethical issues we don't really want to confront, as we all do.

It reminded me of one of my favourite books, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. It concerns a middle-class left-leaning doctor, whose feckless, selfish husband suddenly flips into a paragon of selfless virtue. He insists on giving away any unnecessary possessions to those less fortunate, and lets random homeless people live in their house. She knows she should welcome his values, but hates the privation and fears for her family. It's not the world's greatest novel, but I just love the premise.

As a local elected politician for the last 12 years, I've learnt not to try and portray myself as ethically superior to my political rivals as no-one is perfect and I'll eventually stumble. And I am always instantly suspicious of those who do claim the moral high ground as they're often the very ones who turn out to be crooked.

Which brings us to business. If you are going to portray your organisation as 'ethical', you'd better expect the press to go over your affairs with a fine tooth comb and you won't be able to control the stories that emerge, whether fair or otherwise.

In my opinion, the best strategy is 'show, don't tell' – demonstrating good behaviour in practice with with no overarching claim to sainthood. After all, people believe what they see more than what they read.

 

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19 February 2016

Book Review: Doing Good Better

41pTZkw0-4L._SL160_When I was an undergraduate, I unexpectedly came into a small amount of cash as I'd been underpaid for a summer job. Rather than fritter (all) the money on beer, I thought I'd do some good and sponsor a child in a third world country. £144.00 a year seemed a small price to pay to salve my shame at being born relatively rich.

My naiveté was shattered when I realised that the whole child sponsorship thing was just bait to get well-meaning people like me onto a mailing list so I could receive a begging letter from the charity every month - a typical opening sentence was "Imagine waking every morning to hunger gnawing at your stomach..." I also discovered the money was not going directly to the child concerned, but unspecified "projects in the area". My dream of dragging one child out of the mire of poverty had absolutely no basis in reality. I'd been had.

When I later found out how much the CEO of that particular charity earned, I got very angry indeed – no hunger gnawing at his fat cat stomach I can tell you. I concluded the charity industry was just another way of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor – and one which was much less honest than the others.

Reading William MacAskill's Doing Good Better has blown that cynicism out of the water - not a bad effort for such a short, punchy book. MacAskill points out that if the only good thing that all international development aid in history has ever done is eradicate smallpox, then it is still money well spent, given what we spend on combating diseases in the developed world. He notes that many charitable ideas are worse than useless, and that even worthwhile projects have an difference in impact from the worst to the best of up to a factor of 500.

So, MacAskill argues, we should give to charity and make other acts of altruism, but instead of following our emotions, we should apply some highly rational analysis to our options to make sure our money is delivering. That analysis includes use of metrics such as quality-adjusted life year (QALY) and robust randomised controlled testing of different options. Doing this type of rigorous assessment, for example, revealed that deworming children has a much, much bigger positive effect on their education (and thus their life prospects) than an 'obvious' and sexier solution such as donating school books.

Likewise, MacAskill shows, many people would be advised not to work in an altruistic job unless they have particularly in-demand skills (such jobs are usually over-subscribed so it makes little difference whether you do them or someone else does), but would make a bigger impact by earning a higher salary in a conventional job instead and donating a chunk instead.

When he moves into issues, such as climate change, MacAskill takes a similarly hyper-rational approach as Mark Lynas, blowing myths about carbon offsetting out of the water. He points out that, if you want to save a tonne of carbon a year, you can either go veggie (which MacAskill already is), or buy the equivalent offset from, say, Cool Earth for just $5. You can easily save more carbon than you emit by donating a modest amount to an effective scheme. Fairtrade, on the other hand, is exposed as structurally unsound.

The one point where I felt MacAskill was getting a bit too carried away with his contrarian thesis  was sweatshops where he made the 'better than hard scrabble farming' argument. That's true if those are the only two options, but there is a third – manufacturing jobs with decent working conditions.

If you give money to charity on a purely emotional basis, then you should read this book – it will make your money go further and keep charities on their toes. If, like me, your donations have dried up due to scepticism about whether I'm doing good or paying someone to make me feel good, you should read this book. It may be a rather cold, hard look at altruism, but in my opinion that's exactly what's needed.

 

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28 September 2015

There's no silver bullet in CSR

business angel

For those of us searching for ways of making business more responsible, it is all too easy to call for simple solutions. Unfortunately recent scandals have torpedoed many of the broad brush solutions held up as panaceas:

  • The German approach to business: VW;
  • Family owned business: VW;
  • Worker representation and strong unions: VW;
  • Co-operatives: The Co-operative Bank/Paul Flowers;
  • Nationalised industry: the NHS and Jimmy Saville's abuse of kids therein;
  • A higher calling: child abuse in the Catholic Church.

That's not to say that any of the above things are wrong or are not better than unfettered capitalism, just that they are in themselves no guarantee that unethical behaviour (or turning a blind eye to such behaviour) won't happen.

People are people. We take shortcuts and we chance our arm - some more than others, but we all do it. We are tribal, so we tend to defend our own – sometimes defending the indefensible. Simply changing business models or management structures won't weed out millennia of human evolution.

Culture is key – people need to stand up for what is right, whether the CEO or the software programmer who is asked whether they can they code a cheat into an emissions control system. Those who transgress need to be held accountable, those who blow the whistle on transgressions need to be cherished not shunned.

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy – and the examples above show us that it's more difficult than many of us thought. Me included.

 

 

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21 September 2015

Is there any mileage in unethical business?

vwIt's well known that car makers use all kinds of tricks to bump up the apparent fuel efficiency of their vehicles (surely easily sorted by the authorities with a little effort), but the revelation that VW had engineered their diesel cars to only switch on emissions controls when they are being tested beggars belief. The company faces fines up to $18bn in the US, an expensive recall programme and untold reputational damage.

As an engineer, it pains me that (presumably) a whole bunch of engineers were in on this scam. They would've been much better off putting all that effort into creating engines which meet standards and give great performance.

The VW boss Martin Winterkorn has ordered an 'external investigation' into the scandal, but the question he needs to ask himself is how he let a culture develop where this kind of thing was deemed acceptable.

 

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4 September 2015

Digging an ethical hole...

sustainability climate CSR

Interesting example from Daniel Kahneman's excellent psychology book, Thinking, Fast & Slow:

A hardware store has been selling snow shovels for $15. The morning after a large snowstorm, the store raises the price to $20.

Is this Fair, Acceptable, Unfair or Very Unfair?

A whopping 82% of participants in the experiment rated this as Unfair or Very Unfair, despite the fact it is a simple case of supply and demand – the economic principle which determines everyday vital commodity prices such as oil or grain. Kahneman concludes that a basic rule of fairness is that you shouldn't use market forces to impose losses on others (the price hike was voluntary).

To me, there's a wider implication. Milton Friedman-style thinking says that the only social responsibility of the hardware store is to maximise its profits. However, this assumes that the consumer will accept such thinking as fair and yet it is clear from many real-life examples as well as psychology experiments like this one that they don't.

Fairness matters to people, and customers are people.

 

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17 June 2015

If you can't trust a charity...

Giving to charityA couple of months ago, I was leaving the swimming pool with the older two boys and I was stopped by a nice man selling lottery tickets for a local hospice. I've long been of the opinion that larger charities have become too much like self-serving businesses, but this was a good local cause, so I bought a tenner's worth of tickets. I went happily on my way, a spring in my step.

Since then, I have been contacted several times by phone or mailshot to tell me my lottery has expired and asking would I like to make it a regular donation. Which begs the question, how much of my donation ended up in the hospice's running costs? It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that my original tenner must have atrophied to almost nothing through the costs of chasing me for more money. Was the original transaction effectively a con to get my details?

I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but it does. I have been bitten this way too many times over the years and now I am cynical. In the past I have found that any donation just leads to more emotionally manipulative letters through the door – "Imagine waking up to feel hunger gnawing at your stomach." And my experience fades into nothing compared to those kind souls such as the late Olive Cooke who was getting 260 letters a month asking her for more.

But from the charity sector's point of view, are they not biting the hand that feeds? The response from the charity sector sounded like any other bog standard corporate excuse with Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising telling the Daily Mail:

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Code of Fundraising Practice achieves the right balance in setting robust and clear standards which enable fundraisers to ask for money in a safe and legitimate way while at the same time respecting and protecting the rights of individuals.

We welcome the opportunity to talk with the Minister for Civil Society to update him on the plans that we have in place to review our Code and make sure that we act on any learning that arises from the FRSB’s investigation into the tragic death of Olive Cooke."

It's not about rights, it's about trust. Trust is the glue that holds society together. And if we can't trust charities who can we trust?

 

 

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1 June 2015

For Blatter or Worse

muddy footballAnother week, another massive ethical scandal – this time the curtain has been drawn back on the seething pit of corruption that is Fifa with the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of its annual meeting. More arrests are expected.

Most people would have expected more heads to roll, but at the meeting Fifa president Sepp Blatter was easily re-elected and immediately cast himself as a reformer.

Now, as a number of people have pointed out (for example Vivek Chaudhary), Blatter has largely been a force for good in world football – opening up the cosy European cartels and making it a truly world game. In particular he has shifted cash from the wealthy leagues into those in developing countries and delivered the first World Cup Finals in Asia and Africa.

But, as I have argued over and over again, culture flows from leadership. There is no way such endemic corruption could have taken root in the organisation without, at the very least, the tolerance of the man at the top. No matter what good he has done, justice requires Blatter should go and let someone else take over the reins. Otherwise nothing will change.

 

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28 May 2015

The dumbest guys in the room

Last week, I finally caught "The Smartest Guys in the Room" – the story of the Enron scandal. If you have an interest in business ethics or corporate social responsibility, it is a damning tale of greed, egotism and self-delusion.

Imagine the culture in an organisation where the (perceived) weakest 15% of employees are fired each year. Where the organisation can report profits on energy projects which haven't even been built (or sometimes never were). Where people can be given multi-million dollar bonus for those imaginary profits. In such a poisonous environment, you can imagine that organisation deliberately withholding energy to the State of California until blackouts to push up electricity prices, so they can sell that energy at a premium.

And the extraordinary thing is how many people went along with it. The documentary referenced the Milgram experiments where ordinary people were persuaded to administer dangerous electric shocks to screaming actors (I had never seen the footage of these legendary and terrifying sessions before - truly harrowing).

And how did it end? In tears. The house of cards collapsed, the authorities started investigating and, of the two smartest guys in the room, Jeff Skilling went to jail and Kenneth Lay died awaiting his fate. In a word: Dumb.

But the lesson is, once again, culture beats everything else and culture flows from the top.

 

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20 April 2015

Is 'good business' unethical?

business angel

Last week I was asked to comment on a statement by Prof Aneel Karnani of the University of Michigan who proposes that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) actions are only truly 'ethical' if they reduce the profit made by a business – otherwise any claims are greenwash. I have a lot of problems with this thought, some philosophical, some practical – I've been mulling on these since I made my comments, so I thought I would share.

The philosophical side is about whether any action we take is truly altruistic. This is a matter of much debate in the philosophical sphere – when I pick up a piece of litter in the street, or help the old lady across the road replace a recessed lightbulb, I get a little dose of endorphin that sets up my day. Does that good feeling undermine the altruism of my act?

And every major religion teaches that those who are faithful/do good works will be rewarded after death – does that mean that every good deed by a religious person is done out of pure selfishness? Likewise I don't think any financial reward from CSR undermines the satisfaction from having done the right thing.

On the practical side, I'm not sure that any sensible CSR action will have a negative benefit to the company. Marks & Spencer's Living Wall won't save them any money, but it is a fantastic advert for the company's Plan A sustainability programme – whether to consumers or the next generation of recruits. Study after study has shown that businesses with good sustainability programmes outperform those that don't in financial terms.

Lastly, the sustainability of sustainability. If CSR is shown to add value to the business, then it won't get squeezed out if the going gets rough. If the business purpose is aligned to sustainability then we get a win-win. What's the problem?

In summary 'doing well by doing good' is a strong driver. 'Doing badly by doing good' isn't going to inspire many. I'd rather win-win than lose-lose.

 

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27 March 2015

When 'ethical' can be unethical...

business angel

A very interesting point was raised by a Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group member at last week's meeting:

The easiest ethical choices are often not very ethical, for example it is easiest to avoid buying conflict minerals by avoiding buying from the Democratic Republic of Congo altogether, but you’re actually hurting a country which desperately needs a stronger economy. You should be supporting the 'good' mineral sector.

Wow! That triggers a whole load of questions in my mind:

  • Where does the boundary of ethical responsibility lie?
  • How do you assess the ethical implications of what good things you could do, but aren't doing?
  • Is it ethically OK to wash your hands of an issue like this, or should you dive in and try and solve it?
  • Is there a responsibility for corporations to use their buying power for good?
  • The press and NGOs have a tendency to take a very simplistic black and white view of business ethics issues – ironically given their own ethical missteps – what's their responsibility to be objective and not chase a headline?
  • Can 'ethical' legislation do more harm than good?
  • When is it right to walk away?

Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

 

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19 February 2015

The Only Way is Ethics...

timebombLook at the headlines.

Has HSBC been helping very rich people people avoid tax? Did the Conservative Leader know about it before ennobling an HSBC boss? Did the Labour Leader avoid tax himself on his father's estate opening him to accusations of hypocrisy? Is it OK for a national newspaper to avoid reporting on the scandal given HSBC is a major advertiser? Is it OK to pay tradesmen cash in hand? Did the Shadow Chancellor always get a receipt from his window cleaner?  Are the energy companies exploiting vulnerable customers by keeping them on higher tariffs? Is it OK to kick a robot dog?

In none of these cases did anything illegal take place - they are all about ethics.

So why then do leaders of great organisations still see ethics/corporate responsibility as a side-issue? Why do you rarely hear people talking about doing the right thing in a genuine sense, instead doing what is expedient and hoping for the best? Why are people happy to leave a ticking time bomb under their business?

Doing the right thing may involve a bit of pain at first, but compared to the agony of what can happen in the long run.

 

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19 January 2015

The Rules of the Game - but whose rules?

secret raceAt the weekend I finished reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton - the coruscating inside story of the doping scandal that rocked the cycling world and eventually led to the downfall of its golden child, Lance Armstrong. Hamilton was telling the story from the point of view of a cheat, a liar and a fraud, but he asked the killer question: if you had fought to the very top of your field and then found that the only way to compete was to cheat, what would YOU do?

As I'm sure most people would reply, I'd like to think I'd blow the whistle. But would I?

Back in my early twenties, I was given a work placement in a small electronics company working in a very competitive field, with the axe always hanging over the workforce. As well as the QA work I was there to do, I was asked by one of the salesmen to help him out. He'd had a query from a potential client about the specs of their product compared to competitors. He asked me to put together the figures.

When I proudly presented them to him, he said "Right, go back and anywhere where our spec is below the others, bump ours up until it is even." I stared at him, gobsmacked. He gave me an avuncular look, "Look son, this is how you play the game, everybody does it, we wouldn't be able to compete if we didn't." I looked around at the other guys in the room. No-one spoke, but my boss nodded.

Of course I should have said "Do your own dirty work." but I didn't. I felt the peer pressure and caved. I went and changed the figures and passed them back to him.

It turned out that the dodgy figures were never used, so I never became an accessory to an actual deception. But that was just luck. Peer pressure from the prevailing culture had made me compromise my values. OK, it was a long, long way from cheating your way to 7 Tour de France yellow jerseys, but the underlying principle was the same, just (radically) different circumstances.

In banking, politics and the media, to name just a few, the culture has been so corrupted that cheating has become the norm. And the question is, are those people morally weaker than average, or are they just being human? Hamilton argues the latter.

Of course, the same cultural pressures can be used for good. In the same way that 'dopers' are now ostracised in pro-cycling, a positive ethical culture makes 'doing the right thing' seen as a virtue rather than as priggishness. If you want to have an ethical culture, you've got to show ethical leadership. When someone stands up and says "this isn't right" they need to be embraced, not ostracised.

And if you are interested in ethics, Hamilton's book's definitely worth a read!

 

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1 December 2014

What makes a company 'good'?

There was an article in the Observer yesterday on Simon Anholt and his 'Good Countries Index' that was so fascinating, I immediately checked out Anholt's TEDtalk (above). It asked a really fundamental question. What do we want a/our Country to do? Make us rich? Happy? Healthy?

Anholt's refreshingly selfless answer to this question is that he wants a country to do good for humanity as a whole. So his good country index consists of seven international metrics:

  • Science & Technology
  • Culture
  • International Peace & Security
  • World Order (not as ominous as it sounds - it includes charitable giving, refugees given refuge, UN declarations signed)
  • Planet & Climate
  • Prosperity & Equality
  • Health & Wellbeing

Ireland tops the rankings, with the UK 7th and the US 21st. My only quibble of Anholt's TEDTalk is his claim that Kenya making no 30 means money isn't a prerequisite for 'being good'. I think that's wishful thinking, the predominance of Western nations in the top 30 suggests resources and attitude help a country to make a difference in practice.

That aside, I found this a highly refreshing approach to measuring progress. And as Anholt briefly asks at the end of his talk, what would make a good company in this sense? Reporting standards such as the GRI allow companies to choose which issues are 'material' to them or their industry. But what would a standard, outward looking, international set of metrics look like? Who would top it?

That's too big a question to answer here, but we can ask "what does a good company look like from the outside?", and what are you doing with your company to fulfil that vision?

 

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21 November 2014

We are all ethical - until we go to work...

business angel

Interesting piece of research doing the rounds in the media where they found that bankers were more honest when they weren't thinking about being bankers. This suggests that bankers aren't inherently more unethical than the rest of us, but rather that the culture of modern banking is responsible for LIBOR, Forex, PPI and all the other banking scandals.

Culture is an incredibly powerful force - for good or bad. It is incredible how resilient culture is to change, particularly in larger organisations where you get what I call 'institutional inertia'. Management legend Peter Drucker (is said to have) put it like this:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

If you want to change anything for the better - ethics, social impacts, environmental performance - you better start with the culture.

But Drucker also said:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

This is the essence of Green Jujitsu - work out where the overlap between the existing culture and sustainability sits - and use this as the entry point. It applies just as well to ethical/social issues as it does to green issues.

 

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26 May 2014

How many wake up calls does 'ethical' business need?

epicfailFirst it was the Co-op debacle, then it was the revelation that gender pay differentials are worse in CSR than in wider industry and now we get told that FairTrade maybe isn't actually so fair after all.

Yep, a study by the UK Government and SOAS has found that, rather than paying higher wages via the 'FairTrade' premium, some certified producers pay workers less than large 'unethical' farms in Ethopia and Uganda. FairTrade have responded that this isn't comparing like with like - that you should compare small non-FairTrade with small FairTrade.

THAT. IS. NOT. THE. POINT.

When you or I, as ethical consumers, go to a shop and pay over the odds for produce which we are told was produced by people paid a fair wage for their work, then we expect just that. If the same people can get the same job down the road at a non-certified producer and get paid more to produce products which cost the consumer less, then we are being swindled, plain and simple.

My patience with the 'ethical' sector is wearing very thin. It is very much starting to look like an industry taking advantage of concerned consumers to line their own pockets.

 

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16 May 2014

Practising what we preach...

cobbler

We're all human.

And a human trait that concerns me is a tendency for some who are on a CSR/sustainability/ethical mission to give themselves a 'pass' when it comes to their own behaviour. Cobblers being the worst shod and all that.

Some examples:

I'm nervous about preaching this myself in case someone unearths some enormous hypocrisy on my part (we're all human), but we should never be blinkered by our mission. Doing good at one thing doesn't trade-off against doing wrong elsewhere. We must meet - and surpass - the standards we expect of others.

 

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10 January 2014

More Strategy Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

undercroft sustainability mastermind group

On Tuesday we had the sixth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis.

We returned to a venue for the first time, the fantastic Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. Most of this room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships, and it has functioned as everything from a prison to a wine cellar and, most recently, for exploring sustainability strategy in detail!

The Mastermind Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, or give the specific examples we were discussing, but here is a selection of the generic conclusions we reached:

  • Business meets societal needs. No value => no profit and no profit => no value;
  • Defining societal need in large companies can be difficult as they are often multi-faceted;
  • Fundamental question: does growth => more harm? Depends on business model;
  • Ethical dilemma – whose ethics are ethical? The definition may be out of your hands;
  • Another ethical dilemma – where does responsibility end? Again, the definition may be out of your hands;
  • Fundamentally need to do what’s right for your business;
  • One effective tactic is to drive sustainability goals by piggybacking on other business goals;
  • Need to decide on granularity of the strategy eg simple energy efficiency measures vs reconfiguring whole business;
  • Sometimes you arrive at sustainability objectives from a different direction, but this is not a problem;
  • Asset intensive industries typically use 5 year rolling planning cycle – too short for sustainability planning;
  • Ten year stretch targets for sustainability are compatible with such a cycle;
  • An alternative is to use iconic dates eg corporate centenaries – something for the organisation to rally around;
  • People can obsess about the little stuff ,eg disposable coffee cups, and ignore the big picture;
  • Emotions beat arguments, so show don’t tell – “facts” are never enough;
  • ‘Behind the label’ – provide the detail for those who want to dive into it;
  • Need to complete the whole product sustainability jigsaw;
  • A full product life cycle assessment can be a real eye opener, however care must be taken with life cycle assumptions (eg use patterns, life span);
  • Product stories are an increasingly effective way to market green performance;
  • Independent substantiation of all claims is vital.

As always, the real benefit of the session lies in how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.

The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations. It meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.

 

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25 November 2013

Business Ethics: Compliance vs Conscience

pencil figure checklistOn Saturday there was an interesting, provocative piece in the Telegraph by Charles Moore on the 'Crystal Methodist' Paul Flowers/Co-operative Bank scandal. He argued that the Bank's much lauded ethical stance is what got it in trouble - that by emphasising 'compliance' with ethical/corporate social responsibility systems, they took personal judgement, or 'conscience', out of the system, freeing individuals to act in an unethical way. He scales this up to claim "this obsession with Ethics is one of the great curses of our time."

Here's where I agree with Moore:

  • Some people do use ticking boxes as a shield to avoid taking personal responsibility.
  • That if the Co-operative were truly ethical, it would ensure that a qualified competent person was in charge of its customers' money (BTW: I am one of those customers & so is Terra Infirma Ltd).
  • Far too many organisations that have a CSR/ethical policy still screw up.

But on the fundamental point, that the bank was corrupted by an obsession with compliance with its ethical systems, I must disagree.

For a start, there is no evidence that the crash was due to Flower's political leanings or beliefs. Indeed, the first bank to go belly up in the 2007 credit crunch was Northern Rock, then chaired by Matt Ridley. Ridley is almost the antithesis of Flowers - right leaning, highly pro-market, a climate change sceptic and, we must presume in the absence of evidence to the contrary, clean living. The only thing the two of them have in common is that both were almost entirely unqualified and inexperienced to run a bank. It was incompetence that put both institutions in peril, not politics.

Then, imagine trying to run a large organisation in the absence of a compliance system and relying entirely on personal ethics and judgement? How could you ensure there was no slave or child labour in global supply chains without a system of audits? How would you ensure that your waste wasn't ending up in a lake somewhere without a duty of care process? How would you know that your recruitment process is not discriminatory without monitoring diversity? None of these things can be delivered simply by individuals in organisations acting spontaneously on their conscience - even if they all had spotless halos shining above their heads.

What Moore is guilty of is the classic newspaper columnist's false 'or', because you can have both compliance AND conscience. And of course you can have neither  as we see in so many organisations, and plenty of scandals there too.

I would go so far as to say the modern organisation needs both. You need policies so people know what is expected and the systems to make sure you are following through on your policies. But those systems should never insulate any of us from making the right ethical judgements. That's ethics.

 

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