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16 February 2018

Thoughts on the Oxfam scandal

Years ago at a wedding, I found myself making small talk with a friend's boyfriend who worked in famine relief in Africa. I'd recently been involved in a campaign to relieve unfair third world debt, so in an attempt to keep our rather stilted conversation going, I asked him what he thought of that campaign. His answer shocked me:

"You'd lose control over them." he said shaking his head.

"Them" It was like he was talking about infants, not one of the most vibrant continents on earth. And the whiff of colonialism was unmistakeable.

If we look at all the big sexual abuse scandals: Weinstein, sports coaches, paedophile priests, it has always been a case of the powerful exploiting the powerless and the Oxfam scandal fits right into this mould. Those Oxfam officials in Haiti clearly saw themselves as colonial overlords with droit de seigneur over 'the natives'.

As Lord Acton famously put it "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But, how do so many get away with so much for so long? Why does nobody say anything?

One of my great frustrations in life is the way gang mentality rules in large organisations. If you ever try to make a complaint about an injustice you will find your point slowly sandpapered down to something which can be 'resolved' by 'lessons have been learnt' or some such rot. I once received a rather convoluted argument explaining how someone libelling me (which wasn't disputed) didn't breach the organisation's code of conduct re 'respecting other people'. Because nothing says 'respect' quite like defamation.

At present, whistleblowing is rarely a good career move: you'll be made to feel uncomfortable in the post and, if you look for a new job,  others may worry they're taking on a liability.

So what can we do?

I take some comfort in the new breed of whistleblowing policies which make it a duty to report wrongdoing. Perhaps if enough people get disciplined alongside perpetrators for not reporting corrupt practice, it could start to shift the paradigm. I live in hope!


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8 November 2017

Prince Charles and the green investment conundrum

One of the more intriguing revelations from the 'Paradise Papers' – a leak of documents relating to offshore tax schemes – is that the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles's private estate, had invested in Sustainable Forestry Ltd  which lobbied politicians to amend global agreements to allow the trading of carbon credits from rainforests.

Eyebrows were raised at this revelation as the prince has also made speeches in support of such a change. The Duchy says the prince has no direct involvement in investment decisions, but, if he wasn't aware of the company's position on this, the co-incidence is remarkable.

The Prince is not alone, Al Gore has been attacked for both having investments in green technology (by the right wing climate change denial movement) and for having investments in other technologies (from the hard left). He can't win: if he invests in green then he has a vested interest; if not, he's a hypocrite.

While my investments in green energy schemes are decidedly small beer (understatement klaxon!) compared to the fortunes of the prince and Mr Gore, I decided that I'd rather use my limited spending power in the pursuit of a sustainable future than worry about perceived conflicts of interest. If I saved for my future through 'business as usual' investments, then I'd be helping sustain business as usual. That's a no brainer.

Where Prince Charles has fallen down is not declaring, or possibly being unaware of, a conflict of interest in a specific policy intervention. This is a basic transparency principle for politicians and it should apply to royalty as well.



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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 March 2015

Sir Ian Cheshire on Sustainable Business Leadership

sir ian cheshireI had a fantastically green night out in London on Tuesday. After an impromptu diversion into a St Patrick's, er, Month drinks reception at the Irish Embassy, my good friend Fiona Harvey, eminent Grauniad environment journo, took me to the extraordinarily posh Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall for dinner and, appropriately enough, an after-dinner talk.

The talk was 'Sustainable Business Leadership' by Sir Ian Cheshire, outgoing CEO of the Kingfisher Group (which owns B&Q). The knighthood was awarded for "services to business, sustainability, and the environment" and what Sir Ian said showed it was richly deserved – here are the quotes I scribbled down:

  • I am attracted to business with a mission and a purpose.
  • Don’t you want to work for a business which makes a difference?
  • Sustainability is the engine for our business.
  • Diversity in teams leads to a huge step forward; don’t pick people like you.
  • You have to recognise which decisions matter and what doesn’t: 4 or 5 big calls will determine 80% of your impact.
  • We live in a hyper-transparent world, you can’t pretend anymore.
  • Do you want to be moderately less evil or net positive? The latter’s much more exciting.
  • You’ve got to give people permission to try stuff.
  • It takes an incredibly long time to explain sustainability to your business – I found it took at least 5 attempts.
  • You’ve got to make your solutions relevant to the DNA of your business.
  • You’ve got to translate sustainability for people. There’s no Russian word for sustainability, but Russians love their forests and their water quality.
  • If you don’t understand the warp and weft of your business, sustainability will not work.
  • Corporates create space for Governments to act.
  • CEO questions can drive innovation.
  • Our drive for FSC kitchens cost us £30m, but the perception of quality in the marketplace went up.
  • Our biggest problem isn’t greenwash but greenhush. We don’t talk enough about what we are doing.
  • Ultimately you need sustainability solutions which scale. Without scalability, we won’t get sustainability.

My advice for anyone trying to deliver sustainability in their organisation is to plunder that list for ideas.


Disclosure: The dinner was a private one, so I have run the quotes past Sir Ian to check he was OK with them going public.

Photo taken from


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4 August 2014

Sustainability Strategies in an Uncertain World

screamI'm a news and current affairs junkie, but the news is so unremittingly grim at the minute, I'm trying to ration my intake for my own sanity. Whether it's Ukraine, Gaza, the Ebola virus, Boko Haram or ISIS, we seem to be in a swirl of instability where one small event can pitch us into a crisis.

Sudden disruption is a feature of corporate social responsibility too. The 24 hour news beast needs constant feeding and social media means allegations, legitimate or otherwise, can spread across the globe like wildfire, unfiltered by the reality checks a traditional NGO would be expected to apply. This can turn into a self serving cycle where the mainstream media finds itself reporting on a 'Twitterstorm' which in turn feeds the rumour. All this using a technology which is only 8 years old.

As one of the Sustainability Mastermind Group Members put it ten days ago "Instability is the new business reality." So how can you deal with the beast?

  • Make sure your strategy is separate from your action plans. A strategy should tell you where you want to get to, but you need to be flexible on how you intend to get there. Action plans need to be flexible - remember the old military adage 'a plan never survives first contact with the enemy';
  • Dump liabilities overboard. If you've got a product which you think could get you in trouble in the future, develop a replacement. If you use a chemical of concern - find an alternative or design it out of your process. GM got rid of Hummer after its Government bail out for a very good reason;
  • Open up: Apple has defused much of the bad publicity around its Chinese subcontractors by publishing all its audit reports. This incentivises Apple to deal with problems, incentivises the subcontractors to deal with problems and removes the sting from the NGOs.

But the bottom line is, instability is here to stay, get used to it!




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30 May 2014

Transparency rules OK?

Crazy WomanIt's the conspiracy theorist's favourite event of the calendar this week - the Bilderberg Conference, which depending on your political leaning/grasp of reality is either a global Government in waiting, an orgy of capitalists carving up the world between them, or shape- shifting lizards doing whatever shape-shifting lizards do. But, joking aside, there is something a bit rum about over 100 of the world's most powerful people getting together behind closed doors and talking.

Or is there?

While I was musing on the conference over my muesli this morning, it struck me that my disdain for the secrecy around Bilderberg was a little hypocritical. Our Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group prides itself on its adherence to the Chatham House rule, because it allows people to say things that might get them sacked if they were speaking on the record.

Likewise, the world's markets, political institutions and entire communities can be thrown into turmoil by a single badly worded phrase from one of the great and the good. Is it any surprise they occasionally want to talk freely?

Which brings up an important question - when is transparency good and when is it bad?

How about this as a guideline: facts should be shared, opinions can be private or public, depending on the desires of those who give them.



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16 May 2014

Practising what we preach...


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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20 February 2014

How high do you set the bar?

Athlete compete in paul vault

Sustainability is by definition the biggest challenge facing mankind and, by extension, business. In trying to meet that challenge, one of the greatest dilemmas is how high to set the bar - what targets should you set for yourself? I spend a lot of time with businesses working on targets and the inclination is either to set very vanilla targets in the near future or extremely ambitious targets so far ahead that they can be abandoned to the next generation of employees. The key of course is to find the right trade off between ambition and timeframe to push the organisation to meaningful step changes in real time.

Another strategy is to let someone else to set the targets by using external standards, whether environmental management standards like ISO14001, product standards like the EU eco-label or  reporting standards. While these have many advantages - they are set by third parties, they strive to include all material issues, and they are a useful badge - they do tend to be lowest common denominator as they have to be universal. More worryingly, sometimes organisations hide behind such standards - mining company Glencore once refused to release figures on a certain type of injury because "it wasn't required by the Global Reporting Initiative" - hardly the kind of transparency that the GRI was set up to promote.

There is no easy answer to the target setting challenge and experience is the only effective guide. For large, capital intensive businesses, I prefer to see stretch targets which challenge the status quo set in the 10 year timeframe. But that is simply a matter of judgement - you'll have to rely on your own!


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18 January 2013

Horse burgers, traceability and protecting the brand

As I write, the UK Government is debating the latest food scandal - that horse meat has been found in cheap burgers sold by some of the biggest UK retailers under their own brand. Leaving aside the avalanche of Twitter jokes, this illustrates once again the importance of having a tight control of the supply chain when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

First up, blame. Clearly Tesco et al did not plan to serve contaminated beef to their customers, but the sins of suppliers usually impact on the brand, not the supplier - and usually the biggest brand gets the biggest beating. It is Tesco that is getting it in the neck, not so much Aldi, Lidl et al. There are direct parallels with the Foxconn affair where Apple took 99% of the flak, with lesser brands like HP managing to stay in the shadows.

Secondly, traceability. Consumers rightly expect brands to do the heavy lifting on making sure a product is what it should be and comes from where it should come from. A couple of years ago, I visited a contract tissue paper manufacturer who, as part of their service to the brands they work for, could trace any pack of toilet roll back to the hectare of forest from whence it came.

Thirdly, honesty. Tesco got quickly out of the blocks, taking out adverts in major newspapers saying:

"We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise. So here's our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we'll come back and tell you. And we will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again."

That's miles away from the ducking, diving and excuse making we saw from BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Strangely, rather than putting me off, this whole saga is making me fancy a burger for lunch.


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25 January 2012

CSR becomes the political zeitgeist

All of a sudden corporate social responsibility has been thrust into the UK political spotlight. The three major party leaders have spent the last few months jostling for pole position, and business secretary Vince Cable has this week published proposals for more transparency on executive pay which is probably the hottest of the current hot potatoes.

Now in the interests of transparency, I should make it clear I'm a Liberal Democrat party member and councillor, but I try to keep this blog free from party politics. So I'm not going to critique the different party records on this - if you want an good objective assessment, try this piece by Allegra Stratton in the Guardian. I will reflect instead on the opportunities and threats posed by the current emphasis on this issue.

Overall, this debate can only be a good thing - the whole point of our democratic system is for the opposition to keep snapping at the heels of Government and keep them on their toes, so competition for who's making the boldest calls is welcome. Previously politicians have shown far too much obeisance to big business, especially those who employ large numbers of people in unemployment blackspots, but now we have a great opportunity to make some movement in the right direction. Also, the debate itself can lead to cultural change. If the zeitgeist is that excessive pay is evil, then those setting pay levels will think twice before continuing with business as usual.

However, there are a number of threats. Firstly that political point scoring can lead to a focus on issues which are easily translated into newspaper headlines rather than getting to the underlying (and relatively dull) issue. For example, there's been much debate over a putative bonus for one bank chief, when the nub of the problem is the more technocratic issue of linking reward to performance.

Secondly, crafty politicians and political journalists like to try and undermine good proposals using an extreme exception to the rule. OK, the ill-fated Lehman Brothers bank was sort of a co-operative, but evidence shows that co-operatives on average are more responsible than other business structures, so we shouldn't let that one bad apple spoil the barrel.

Thirdly, getting regulation right is difficult. There is a massive risk of unintended consequences with major changes, and fear of getting egg on their faces often drives politicians to be conservative (with a small 'c'!) in their ambition. This fear is exacerbated by the fragility of the economy. Therefore change is more likely to be incremental than revolutionary.

Of course, the best solution is for business to voluntarily embrace true corporate social responsibility. This means going beyond a few handouts and embracing values like fairness, equity, transparency, respect and co-operation. That view might seem naive to some, but there is a stack of evidence that more ethical businesses do better financially than their bottom-line fixated equivalents. The new maxim is "doing well by doing good" and business would do well to adopt it so they can come up with solutions which work for them, rather than being bent into uncomfortable positions by politicians.

If they don't act, they can't complain if CSR is forced upon them.

Photo credits: Creative Commons Licences: David Cameron and Nick Clegg photos are from the World Economic Forum, Ed Miliband from Mandate for Change

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7 September 2011

The problem with CSR standards

The mining giant Glencore has just released a corporate responsibility report as it promised when it listed on the London Stock Exchange earlier this year. I'm not going to comment on the company's performance as this has been done at length by many others, but I noticed this telling passage in the Guardian:

The company said it also collected statistics on "permanent damage injuries", and had other figures for health and safety, but that it only publicly disclosed what was required by the Global Reporting Initiative [GRI] standards.

This last statement bothers me. It used to be that industries did just enough on corporate responsibility issues to stay within the law - compliance, no more, no less. Then everyone started talking about the benefits of going "beyond compliance" and from that a number of standards emerged to guide companies, including the GRI mentioned above. But instead of embracing the spirit of transparency that the GRI is intended to spread, Glencore have simply treated the GRI like a regulation of old - compliance, no more, no less.

While having standards is both useful and important, to really benefit from CSR the "beyond compliance" ethos must continue - each standard must be seen as a minimum baseline, not a rigid framework.

In this particular case, greater transparency will drive better performance, and will avoid the kind of negative publicity Glencore have generated by sitting on these stats. If you have a skeleton in your cupboard, kick it out!


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31 January 2011

Rags & Riches - the Ethics of Charity

There's a wonderful ethics case study in the press today - a rag trade dealer has made £10m since 2008 from running the Salvation Army's clothing donations 'business'. The Guardian ran the story on its front page, contrasting the dealer's £1m mansion with pictures of virtuous souls pushing bin bags of old clothes into recycling banks.

What you have to read on to discover is that the charity made £16m out of the deal - more than 60% of the turnover. Just to put that in perspective, the best charity Christmas cards donate about 20% of the retail price to charity (and the worst a miserly 4%). So in a sane world, the headline should be "recycling clothing is three times more cost effective for charities than selling Christmas cards".

So why the fuss?

In a word, trust. The charity sector has a long record of misleading the public. In my youth I once "sponsored" a child with a major charity only to find afterwards that the money went to projects in "the surrounding area", rather than to the welfare of the child herself. In the meantime the charity would send me a monthly letter full of pictures of other starving children with pleas for more money. The child was just being exploited as bait and I felt cheated. A few years ago, a charity executive defended this sort of sharp practice in the press saying the public was not so naive to think that a small donation could make a difference. That's not only disingenuous but illogical - if the public isn't fooled, then why are they letting themselves be fooled?

Compared to this, I think the Salvation Army are angels. I am in no doubt that they are getting a good deal in keeping 60+% of the proceeds of the clothing collections. No one could argue that a process of this size shouldn't involve for-profit organisations - there isn't a vast web of not-for-profit logistics companies out there. Their problem is transparency - to maintain trust and protect their brand, they need to be much more open. If every recycling bank had a statement that 40% of proceeds get absorbed by commercial partners, then no one has the right to complain, not even the media on a slow news day.

Skeletons in cupboards are hostages to fortunes. It is always better to throw them out than wait for the press to start sniffing around for a story.

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