Thursday, March 27, 2014

A practitioner's reflections on the problems of shared value

After our article on shared value came out in the California Management Review, and we published our last blog piece summarizing our critique, we've had a lot of response from various academics and practitioners in the corporate responsibility field. In fact, we've probably had more emails, comments and calls on this one article than we've had on anything else we've ever published. It has clearly struck a nerve. In the main, these responses have been very positive, suggesting that a lot of people have just been waiting for an article like this to come out. Here's just a smattering of some of the responses we've received (you can also read the comments to our blog post for more):

"This is a long over due excellent and comprehensive critique on the overly optimistic and shallow CSV framework that doesn't really address the real trade offs required to get to sustainable development."

"Good on you for re-framing this topic in a manner that more fully reflects the spirit of corporate social responsibility."

"It is some of the most enjoyable reading I have done in a very long time."

"Just read you CMR paper on CSV - well done. It is about time that someone took this idea apart."

Of course, many commentators, even whilst being supportive of our critique, have also pointed out some of the pragmatic benefits of Porter and Kramer's approach, like this one:

"I can see how the win-win wonderland (in Mintzberg's words) could be a diversion, but I wonder how it might crack existing inertias, and/or if any positive momentum could be leveraged for fashioning a more complete framework."

Such considerations of the lifeworld of business is a theme that is addressed in the discussion we have with Porter and Kramer at the end of our article, but is not something that we fully elaborate on. With this in mind, we thought it worthwhile to post here one of the more thoughtful and extended responses we received from a corporate responsibility practitioner. This is from Rory Sullivan, a veteran of the responsible investment community, now working as an independent advisor as well as being a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. He explores some of our points with regard to how CSR and CSV might be seen from a practitioner perspective. We thought they deserved reproducing here as they help to frame an important element of the debate in a constructive way:

"A proper analysis of the concept and value of ‘Creating Shared Value’ has been needed for some time, and your article does an excellent job of setting out the strengths and weaknesses of CSV. I was disappointed that Porter and Kramer failed to engage with the substantive points that you raised; their bludgeon of a response seemed at odds with the nuanced and careful arguments you presented in your article. While I support the broad lines of argument and analysis in your article, I would like to offer some reflections from a practitioner’s perspective:

  • Your discussion of “CSR as a Straw Man” is fair in its treatment of the academic literature (which has argued that CSR should be a corporate strategic priority). However, CSR in practice is quite different. In far too many companies, CSR continues to have limited business relevance (in terms of its influence on strategy or capital allocation) and remains far closer to philanthropy than the theoretical literature suggests (or would like).
  • On the originality of CSV: Your review of the literature ignored the many important practitioner contributions (e.g. by John Elkington, Stuart Hart, CK Prahalad) which have influenced CSR in practice. I suspect that many practitioners see CSV as a glossy reformulation of ideas such as the triple bottom line, rather than as a new framing of the debates around the role of business in society.
  • On the evidence for CSV: One of the key challenges faced by companies in practice is that ideas that work at a local level and at a small scale, may or may not work [in fact, they often don’t] when they are scaled up to the corporate level or when other companies try to replicate the experience. There are various reasons – the generalizability of approaches, the transaction costs, etc of moving to scale, the problems of taking projects and processes from one corporate culture and trying to implement them in another.
  • I’m not convinced by your argument that CSV is based on a shallow conception of the corporation in society. My (personal) reading of the Porter and Kramer article was that it was best understood as an analysis of the corporation in society, where the corporation is taken as the central unit of analysis (perhaps akin to every western individual being at the centre of their own personal narrative). In that frame of reference (which, I accept may not be what they had in mind), the concept of CSV could be interpreted as simply an argument that there are things that companies can do to make them a little more useful to (or a little less harmful) to society."
Plenty of food for thought there. Any more practitioners out there want to throw their two cents in?

Photo by Ross. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Four big problems with "Creating Shared Value"

The idea of "Creating Shared Value" (CSV) popularized by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in the Harvard Business Review has probably done more to get corporate responsibility issues into the boardroom than anything else written in the last few years. In many respects, that is a good thing. Or at least it is until you start to realize all the big problems that are hidden behind the big ideas of CSV.

We've just published (together with Guido Palazzo and Laura Spence) a comprehensive critique of CSV in the California Management Review. The published version features a response from Porter and Kramer and a counter response from us which we think makes for quite enlightening reading (you can also download a free, but slightly different, version of our article but without this dialogue over at SSRN).

Our article sets out four main problems with CSV:

1. It is unoriginal. 
Porter and Kramer simply don't acknowledge that there is little new about CSV. People have been writing about much the same thing for decades. And the corporate initiatives they rebrand as CSV are just attempts to relabel practices that were already going ahead prior to them publishing their article. It's just that some people call those practices "strategic CSR," "social innovation," or "stakeholder management."

2. It ignores the tensions between social and economic goals.
CSV is presented as "moving beyond trade-offs" between social and economic goals. But that is only because Porter and Kramer ignore any such trade-offs that might need to be made. Sure, there are some great opportunities where business success can be aligned with social progress. But there are also a whole host of social problems, especially those caused by business, where social and economic goals inevitably conflict. CSV prompts managers to simply ignore them.

3. It is naive about business compliance
In a move very much reminiscent of Milton Friedman's famous critique of CSR, CSV "presumes compliance with the law and ethical standards, as well as mitigating any harm caused by the business". Of course, this is where all those messy "trade-offs" are hiding. But as long as you can presume them away, then you don't have to deal with them. In fact there is only one sentence dedicated to social harms, ethical norms and legal compliance in their whole article. So, let's just ignore all the occasions when firms harm people or the environment. Let's ignore all all the times they fail to uphold some of the laws and ethical customs of the places in which they operate. Then we can talk about CSV. But let's not pretend that this is a useful strategy for corporate responsibility or still less a sane way to re-legitimize business, as they claim in their article. Just getting firms to respect the spirit of the law - say in paying their fair share of taxes or respecting international labour standards across the globe - would be a much better way of re-legitimizing business.

4. It is based on a shallow conception of the corporation's role in society
CSV is supposed to be about "reshaping capitalism" but in reality it is really just more of the same of all the stuff that has given capitalism such a bad name - a blind focus on individual corporate self-interest. It will help solve some social problems, and will make some firms, and some stakeholders better off … but who are they kidding that this is going to save capitalism? What we need is a perspective that acknowledges the systematic nature of many of the problems we face, and a willingness from firms to engage in collaborative responses with other stakeholders to solve the problems that need solving. Not just those that can be cherry-picked to make a fast buck.

The point is not that CSV contributes nothing to the debate on corporate responsibility - there are some very good reasons why it has met with so much success, as we discuss in the article. But in ignoring much of which is actually problematic in the field it gives a very unrealistic picture of the challenges ahead. Managers looking to combine social welfare with economic prosperity simply deserve more than the whitewash that CSV offers them.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CSR in Africa: be part of it!

Today we have another guest post from our long-term friend and collaborator, Laura Spence, who is just back from the African Academy of Management Conference and had some reflections we thought would be good to share.
*  *   *   *   *   *
Given the laudable aims of corporate social responsibility protagonists - I guess, roughly speaking, to make the world a better place - you have to wonder why so much time and effort is put into understanding social responsibility in places where really, let’s face it, the social problems are not really that big.

Should we be stressing about which company sponsors school sports equipment, or would we be better occupied to worry about schools which have no books? Is corporate lobbying one of life’s big issues or could it rather be the conflation of corporations and governments, systemic bribery, corruption and nepotism? Should we be fretting about diversity training in head offices or focusing on situations where gender, race, class, caste, religious and tribal differences mean staggering inequalities in opportunities are ingrained? It paints a pretty miserable picture when you think about it.

For all this, understanding developing and emerging countries need not be a miserable enterprise. I have just come back from the fabulous African Academy of Management (AFAM) Conference in Botswana, with renewed understanding of social responsibility – or at least a whole new set of questions to ask.

Discussion around the conference was not so very different in many respects to other Academy events, but one thing kept surfacing – we might list the relative importance of issues in developing country contexts, but is there a different philosophical starting point? Are the frameworks based on Western capitalist systems of any real help outside of the ‘West’?

As is the way of things sometimes, a glimmer of an answer came for me in one of the few moments we had to get outside of the conference. We visited, by chance, a small exhibition of local artists’ work relating to the fight against HIV/AIDs. It was produced under a cross-sector partnership between government and a local NGO with the Tswana strap line ’Nna le sea be’. This roughly translates as ‘Be part of it’.

It is just a tourist-eye view of mine of course, but this felt different to me, not an approach I would expect to see elsewhere. There is something special about the local push for the acceptance of problems and drive to pull people together to join in and be a part of the solution, reflected through a local saying used in equal measure to help someone pick up something they have dropped, or work together to reduce the tragedy of HIV/AIDS. Surely this has implications for CSR in Africa.

Alongside this, another important realisation was the different pace in Botswana. Time and again when waiting for some service or other to be provided, one is met with ‘It’s coming’ or better still ‘Tomorrow’. It is a reminder how hung up some cultures are with everything being just so, preferably yesterday. When the pace of life slows, this does seem pretty absurd, but it also acts as a reminder that transferring expectations from one part of the world is a misguided approach to just about anything, not least CSR. It is likely to be far more helpful to learn from local perspectives, achievements and solutions. But patience might be needed.

My reason for being in Botswana was as part of the team offering a PhD training workshop and a stream on small and medium sized enterprises and social responsibility in developing countries funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. We have six seminars planned for 2014 and 2015, a book and as a result of the fascinating time had at AFAM 2014, we will be wrapping up our project at AFAM2016 in Ethiopia.

Nna le seabe.

Laura J. Spence

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Top 10 corporate responsibility stories of 2013

Plus ├ža change in corporate responsibility. If nothing else, 2013 provided ample evidence that, contrary to popular belief, corporate responsibility issues, even the huge stories that dominate the media, do not exactly come out of nowhere. So many of the top CR stories of the year, like the Rana Plaza disaster, Apple's tax problems, and JP Morgan's huge fine, were already prefaced by the big stories of the previous year. Among our top 10 of 2012 were a Bangladesh factory fire, corporate tax avoidance, criticism of tech companies, and prosecutions in the financial sector. So the writing was already on the wall for most of the big stories of 2013. It would appear, as Ethical Corporation editor Toby Webb said recently, that with all the excitement about new opportunities and win-wins, companies are underestimating the importance of sound ethical risk management in the corporate responsibility equation. So, if you want to know what CR risks lie ahead for 2014, you could do worse than checking through our list of the big stories of 2013.

1. Rana Plaza building collapse
Back in April 2013, more than 1100 people, mostly garment workers, died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed near Dhaka in Bangladesh. It was probably the single worst garment factory disaster yet, in an industry that has suffered more than its fair share of needless fatalities. But Bangladesh had already seen a series of major industrial accidents leading up to Rana Plaza, which had been met with little tangible response from business and government leaders. Rana Plaza looks to have at last changed that. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed by nearly 100 global retailers, as well as labour unions and NGOs is a legally binding agreement to ensure worker safety through independent factory inspections, mandatory repairs, financial support, and sanctions for noncompliance. More than 2m vulnerable Bangladeshi garment workers are already covered by the Accord. A competing agreement, signed by Walmart, Gap, Target and other North American companies was criticized for having weaker enforcement and failing to involve labor unions. Nonetheless, both pacts are evidence that factory safety in Bangladesh is finally getting the concerted attention it deserves.

2. Apple's tax avoidance
Corporate tax avoidance had been a growing story in the UK and elsewhere prior to 2013, as evidenced by our top stories listing of 2012. But the issue exploded onto the public consciousness when Apple's CEO Tim Cook was forced to testify to a Senate committee in Washington back in May of this year. The company had avoided paying literally billions of dollars in tax by exploiting various loopholes in international tax treaties and funnelling its European profits through a shell company in Ireland. All completely legal, of course, but hardly what the public expects of a good corporate citizen. Now that attention to corporate tax avoidance has gone global, and with inequality and government debt the two biggest global risks today, the obvious questions are which country will be next in taking aim and which company will be in the firing line? Corporate tax reform is also undoubtedly going to loom even larger in the coming year.

3. NSA spying
Without doubt, Edward Snowden's whistleblowing on the US National Security Agency's (NSA) mass surveillance programs was the story of 2013. Nothing else even got close. However, the corporate responsibility dimensions still remain somewhat murky, which is why it doesn't quite make it to the top of our list. We do know, however, that telecoms companies like Verizon are required to hand over all call records  (or "metadata") to the NSA about cell phone calls made in the US. We also know that none of these companies ever sought to challenge the legality of the action. Another revelation was that the secret PRISM spying program allows the NSA to tap into the servers of internet companies like Google and Microsoft to access customer data. We also know that NSA pays millions of dollars to these same companies. We do not yet know exactly how complicit tech companies have been in the whole mess but one thing for sure is that they now realize that the NSA spying story is undermining their customers' trust and are calling for government reform. Expect much more to come in 2014.

4. JP Morgan's $13bn misconduct settlement
Our annual list of major corporate responsibility stories would not be complete without an entry from the finance industry. As we predicted at the beginning of the year, 2013 was marked by the return of government and some major financial sector scalps. None of these was bigger than the whopping $13bn fine landed on JP Morgan for misleading investors in the same of mortgage backed securities in the lead-up to the financial crisis. To date, it is the settlement ever between the US government and a corporation, and will come as some (though probably not enough) relief to those who have viewed most of the finance sector giants as getting away with the crisis relatively unscathed. On the other hand, JP Morgan is probably pretty sore about catching the flack for misconduct that was less about their own practices and more down to firms like Bear Stearns that they were encouraged by the US government to acquire at the height of the meltdown. No one comes out of this looking good.

5. Europe's horse meat scandal
At the beginning of the year, the big news was all about horse meat turning up in products it wasn't supposed to be in. Like those clearly labelled as "beef". The scandal started in the UK, quickly spread to a suspect supplier in Ireland, and soon rocked much of Europe. Customer trust rapidly evaporated as it became clear that effective oversight of the food industry was sorely lacking. Companies acted quickly to withdraw potentially contaminated products and shore up confidence but further revelations of large scale criminal activity in the food supply chain will do little to restore trust in a thoroughly compromised industry.

6. India's new CSR law
The world's largest democracy now has the world's most extensive CSR legislation. But that is not necessarily a good thing. Under the new Companies Act, passed by the Indian Parliament in August 2013, large Indian companies must spend at least 2 per cent of their net profits on CSR each year from 2014 onwards. It also requires firms to set up a CSR board committee and institute a CSR policy. The new CSR legislation has met with a mixed reaction, especially as it seems to institutionalize a somewhat backward looking approach to CSR which emphasizes philanthropic giving whilst ignoring the core strategic business of the firm. It will also be incredibly hard to enforce in a country already hamstrung by an overburdened legal system. On the plus side, the legislation does force many of India's laggard companies to finally take some responsibility for the various social problems faced by the country's citizens. For better or worse, CSR is no longer something that can be ignored in India.

7. Chevron's Ecuador pollution case
It has been a big year for Chevron and Ecuador in their long-running, aggressively-fought pollution case. In November, the Ecuadorean high court made its long-awaited appeal decision which upheld the original 2011 judgement requiring Chevron to pay $9bn to compensate for contaminating the rainforest during crude oil extraction over two decades ago. Chevron has never operated in Ecuador but inherited the lawsuit and its toxic legacy when it took over Texaco, the original operator, in 2001. For its part Chevron continues to dispute the legality of the ruling and has refused to pay. The appeal was at least partially successful for Chevron by halving the original $18bn damages bill, but not in overturning the decision. Chevron is now awaiting the outcome of a counter-suit heard last month in the US against the plaintiff's main lawyer, who the company claims engaged in bribery and fraud to secure the conviction. Meanwhile, attempts by the plaintiffs to seize Chevron's assets overseas to pay the fine also had their ups and downs in 2013. For example, Canada first denied them the rights of enforcement in May, only for a judge to overturn the decision on appeal in December. Other actions are underway in Brazil and Argentina. This has fast turned into a test not only of the Ecuadorean legal system, but of the global legal system's appetite to prosecute international legacy corporate responsibility issues.

8. Rosia Montana mining protests 
2013 saw major protests against mining operations all over the world, including Australia, Canada, Columbia, Greece, Niger, Peru, even Tibet. But the biggest of the lot was probably in Romania, which saw a mass protest movement arise in response to plans to mine around the town of Rosia Montana. If approved, it would be Europe's largest gold mine but critics claim that it would inflict untold social, environmental and cultural damage. Mass street protests erupted after the government proposed a new law that would enable the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (majority owned by the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources) to finally start operations after years of failing to acquire the necessary environmental permits. At stake here then is not just the proposed mine but the legitimacy of the democratic process, which protesters feel has been fatally undermined by the hastily forced through legislation. As one protester put it: "People today confront a corrupted political class backed up by a corporation and a sold out media; and they ask for an improved democratic process, for adding a participatory democracy dimension to traditional democratic mechanisms."

 9. New UN Global Compact 100 Index
There were several entrants to the new corporate responsibility standards and guidelines category in 2013, with the G4 guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative probably being the most talked about. But September's launch of the Global Compact's new stock market index, the Global Compact 100, for us represented the most significant development. First, as John Entine noted, it offered a welcome new development in a social investing field "hungry for innovation and dogged by ideological correctness". But more than that it showed just how far the UN was willing to push the needle on its voluntary approach to corporate responsibility that heavily prioritizes incentives rather than enforcement. While many are still criticizing the Global Compact for not having sharp enough teeth to weed out laggards and green washers, the new index makes it abundantly clear that the UNGC is moving in a very different direction. Ten years ago it would still have been unthinkable, but the reality is that the UN is no longer just in the business of accords, declarations, and principles but is now also firmly in the finance industry.

10. South Korea's nuclear corruption scandal
GSK's corruption scandal in China may have got most of the headlines, but in our book, the corruption scandal that has engulfed South Korea's nuclear industry this year tops it for potential impact. Two short years after Japan's Fukishima disaster, neighbouring South Korea is also facing a devastating loss of confidence in its nuclear industry which supplies about a third of the country's energy needs. The scandal has centred on a swathe of faked safety certificates that have been issued for critical nuclear reactor parts over the years, and the bribes that have allegedly been paid to look the other way. Most commentators pin the blame on the closed structure of the nuclear industry in South Korea with only a single national operator and close ties between the operator, suppliers and testing companies. The prime minister has likened the industry to the mafia. A number of reactors have been shut down, trust in the industry has plummeted, a national energy shortage is underway, and now some 100 officials have been indicted for their part in the scandal. Corruption that compromises the safety of the nuclear industry is probably about as bad as it gets. And its unclear yet whether South Korea can really turn this one around.

Photo by rijans. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence


Monday, November 25, 2013

The business of modern-day slavery


Events last week in the UK, where three women were rescued from what appears to be a 30 year-long situation of forced domestic labour situation, have focused a great deal of attention on "modern-day slavery". But it is hardly a one-off. Issues of forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery are increasingly gaining public attention. Business, however, has been slow to engage in the conversation.

Perhaps this is no surprise given that no company wants to run the risk of being tainted with the spectre of slavery. But most of the big modern slavery stories involve business. From children forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan to labourers enslaved to fish in the waters of New Zealand, hardly a week goes by without a new story of extreme exploitation being splashed across the media. The appalling treatment of migrant construction workers in Qatar the build up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup has gained more exposure than most, likely because of the headline claim that construction for the World Cup will leave 4000 migrant workers dead. It is a heart-stopping statistic.

With all this noise around modern slavery, much of it at the hands of campaigners such as Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and Walk Free (who are responsible for the recently launched Global Slavery Index), governments at least are gradually starting to act. The UK Government is already in the process of drafting a modern slavery bill to make the complex legal situation around the issue more clear for prosecutors. The US has also launched initiatives to tackle human trafficking in the supply chains of companies and government contractors. Canada too now has a national action plan to combat human trafficking whilst Brazil has perhaps gone the furthest of any country in seeking to tackle the problem.

Such measures are to be applauded, but there's still a long way to go in effectively combating the worst forms of human exploitation. And one crucial player that so far hasn't brought much to the party is business. Compared with many other social and environmental issues, modern slavery has not seen much enthusiastic response from the business community. Although virtually all corporate codes of conduct prohibit any kind of forced labour, the issue is rarely given any particular attention. Most businesses simply assume that it doesn't affect them. However, the torrent of news stories across various countries and industries suggests otherwise. Companies just aren't looking hard enough to find their connection to modern slavery.

David Arkless, formerly President of Corporate and Government Affairs at the global temp agency Manpower, is probably the most visible and articulate member of the business community involved in anti-slavery efforts. He said last week that he was "frustrated by the lack of involvement of corporations in efforts to ensure that their supply chains are verified against the use of abused labour and that most of the big corporations of the world have not amended both their financial, expense and human resource policies.” You can understand his frustration. Most business leaders are simply burying their heads in the sand.

This is a major stumbling block because most forms of modern slavery either involve business or affect it in some way. After all, forced labour is a particular way of doing business - a morally regnant one for sure, but a business practice all the same. Even illegal industries such as prostitution and drug cultivation, both of which have had numerous documented cases of trafficking and forced labour, rely on business principles and come into contact with legitimate businesses at some stage. The bottom line is that we have to understand modern slavery as a business if we are to make any real sense of it and take appropriate steps to prevent it.

The research base exploring the business of modern slavery is especially thin. So I was pleased last week to help launch a new report funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the business models and supply chains found in forced labour in the UK. It was a fascinating project to be involved in, and along with my co-authors, I'm hoping that it really helps to shine a light on the economics of modern slavery in developed country contexts.

One of our main findings is that although forced labour is often described as a hidden crime, it is not as difficult to unearth as many in the UK, including businesses and government, seem to believe. As my co-author Genevieve LeBaron and I say in a recent article for The Guardian: "The problem is not so much that we cannot find forced labour; it is that either we choose not to look where it is most likely to occur or we simply misclassify those being exploited as criminals rather than victims. A new approach to detecting and enforcing forced labour is necessary. To pinpoint its occurrence we need to start by examining the forces of supply and demand."

Much still needs to be done to really understand how these economic forces lead to such extreme forms of exploitation. But the good news is that we're making good progress. The challenge will be getting legislators and business leaders alike to take our findings seriously.

AC


Photo by Junaidrao. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence