Friday, April 25, 2008

So, what makes women so special?

This week on the website of the Globe and Mail newspaper, you can watch Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh talk about why he thinks it’s a good idea to hire more women. Actually, what he says is not very spectacular, mostly that women are as good as men and often easier to get (as employees, that is…). Well, not exactly a daring observation. And that his company will work hard to raise the 33% share of women in executive positions. Nice intentions.

It goes to show though that equal opportunities for men and women are still an issue. Just think of all the talk about a woman now running for president in the US. It looks like we have come a long way, but there is still much to do.

It is interesting to see how this topic has become more and more an issue for corporations. In our forthcoming book ‘Corporations and Citizenship’ we have a whole chapter on the corporate role in reflecting, enabling or restricting identities of citizens. Gender is just one of many examples here. If we think about equal opportunities for women careers, issues like maternity leave, freedom from discrimination or harassment – it is mostly the corporate sphere where these issues are either respected or suppressed. In that sense then having a CEO talking about the issues is actually reflecting the simple fact that, yes, companies are nowadays centre stage in tackling these inherently political issues.

The debate also goes on in the academic community of business ethics scholars. Our book is one of the few that explicitly features the approach of feminist ethics. While we don’t do much more then summarizing the state of the art, this little section in Chapter 3 has ignited some debate recently. The question is really whether women are inherently different from men: is it correct to stereotype men as ‘rights/status oriented’ whereas women, in this school of ethics, are stereotyped as ‘care/relationship oriented’. With many of our younger (especially female) students our experience in the classroom has been that sometimes this sounds to them like grandmother talking about the war. Long gone are the heated debates on feminism in the 1960s where these theories gained currency.

As we said, we have come a long way here, but it seems there still remains a lot to be done. Both in understanding and appreciating gender diversity (without stereotyping), but also in addressing discrimination and prejudice. And it is in business, where most of these issues are the most hotly contested.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fat chance for CSR

Regular readers of the Crane and Matten blog will be aware of our ongoing interests in social responsibility and self regulation in the food industry. Few subjects arouse as much debate as the stuff we put on our plates every day, the things that make us fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy … and of course the role that corporations play in enabling or preventing us from making informed and sustainable choices about food consumption.

So it is with some interest that we can report that this week saw the introduction of the first bill in the US that requires food outlets to display the calorie contents of their products on menus (see the recent newspaper article in The Guardian about this for more details). Yes, New York City has defied the vigorous campaigning of the fast food industry to put in place regulations that will ensure that customers in the city will no longer have to scrabble through the desultory rack of in-store nutrition leaflets or wade through the games and promotions on the corporate website in order to work out just how many calories that bucket of fried chicken and fries is going to pack.

Regulation of course is somewhat anathema to some (but not necessarily all) in the CSR world. Proponents of social responsibility typically promote self-regulation by business as a preferable alternative to government-imposed legislation. But in the hard fought battle of the bulge in New York, the city’s restaurant chains have been reluctant to introduce more far reaching CSR initiatives that may have staved off today’s regulation.

So from our perspective, the new legislation represents something of a mixed blessing. Sure, customers should be able to make informed decisions on the basis of readily available, easily comparable, and ultimately relevant, information about their prospective purchases at the point of sale. The New York legislation clearly has the potential to deliver this, providing restaurant chains live up to the spirit as well as the letter of the law. And, most importantly, such information is critical to the enabling of what we discuss under the label of ‘consumer sovereignty’ in our business ethics text. Basically, as the INSEAD professor Craig Smith has shown, the point is that ethical exchanges require consumers to have appropriate capability, information and choice in making their purchase decisions.

But, on the other hand, the New York regulations also, to some extent, a represent a failure on the part of the food industry’s CSR movement to get ahead of the game and work through a suitable industry-led alternative. Nutrition leaflets and website data are all well and good, but they hardly represent a creative and sustainable response to the health issues facing a society in the midst of a rapidly escalating obesity problem. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and the rest of the usual suspects have been talking the talk well enough, but in the end this wasn’t enough, at least not in New York.

Of course, the interesting question now is what will happen elsewhere, whether in other US states or further afield. Will the New York regulations act as a spur for more states or even countries to legislate? Will the food chains get their act together and instigate more responsible labeling programmes? Will we see new operators entering as-yet unregulated markets with information-led, nutrition-oriented value propositions, just as we have in the packaged food sector? Or, will all the fuss die down leaving fast food corporations free to scupper the new regulations before they have a chance to seriously take hold? The writing is on the wall, for sure. The only problem is, it’s just a little hard to read.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Giving olympic sponsors a sporting chance?

For those of you that have been following our entries on the upcoming Beijing Olympics, we thought this article, "Navigating Olympic Sponsorship: Marketing Your Brand without Alienating the World" from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania might be of interest (thanks to Elizabeth Watson for alerting us to this one). It gives a good overview of some of the issues that the Olympics' corporate sponsors will have to juggle in the face of the political protests. As one of the Wharton professors comments in the article:

"Corporations that want to sponsor the Games have to navigate the political undercurrents ... I wouldn't be surprised if many underestimated the potential for [the Games] to turn into an international issue and thought instead, 'We can reach a billion eyeballs; the political stuff will just go away. But politics isn't about money. It's about hope and fear and common purpose and identity."

As the article rightly says, it is hardly surprising that the Games are a political focal point, and indeed, they often have been over the years. The difference now though is that the politics are far more embedded in economics than they once were. What with China being such an important trading partner for many corproations, not to mention the huge sponsorship deals involved, the incentives to avoid rocking the boat are there for all to see.

As we've already said, it's a little too early to tell what the consequences are going to be for the corporate sponsors, but one potential outcome mooted in the Wharton article may just be rattling a few nerves at Coca Cola, McDonalds, Volkswagon and the other sponsors. As anyone who has visited China will be aware, broadcasters in the PRC have a definite proclivity to black-out broadcasts at the slightest suggestion of anything controversial. After spending billions on sponsorship, the last thing the multinationals will want to see is a blank screen. Well, that's not counting the potential for "an unlucky photo or video clip of, say, Chinese police cracking a protester over the head in Beijing with a General Electric, Johnson & Johnson or Visa logo in the background". Unlucky? Or it just part and parcel of the heady brew of business, politics and sport?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Business and politics: Berlusconi and BAE back in the news

This week sees Crane and Matten travelling to Europe. At the moment we are in Milan in Italy, being hosted by the CSR Unit at Bocconi University. Later in the week, we will be off to the UK for meetings, research interviews, and a general catch up in London and Nottingham.

It's an interesting time to be here in Italy, with the Alitalia sale in the news every day, and the national election having taken place over the weekend. As expected, Silvio Berlusconi has come out on top, and is now set to lead the country for an incredible third time. As a renowned media tycoon, it just goes to show how ingrained business is with politics here, a point that we have been discussing a lot in our work on the political roles of corporations over the last few years. In fact, when we gave a seminar on Corporations and Citizenship at Bocconi yesterday, it struck us just how comfortable our Italian colleagues were with the idea that corporations have political roles and identities - an issue that often arouses controversy elsewhere, where the idea that corporations have solely economic roles in society often prevails. It made a change to get such a warm reception.

Of course, the intersections of business and politics will also be on the agenda when we touch down in the UK later in the week. One of the most popular cases in our Business Ethics book deals with the BAE corruption scandal, and it seems that this whole issue is very much back on the agenda again in the UK. Last week saw the high court in London rule that the Blair government's decision to quash the inquiry into the alleged corruption on the grounds of national security was unlawful, yet the new PM, Gordon Brown looks set to continue on the path of his predecessor in attempting to block any further investigation - despite what appears to be considerable international pressure from the OECD, the US and elsewhere to do otherwise.

The upshot of all this is that it is clear that the untangling of business and politics is getting increasingly difficult, whether here in Italy, the UK, or pretty much anywhere else. The cosy world of distinct sectors with clear responsibilities looks to be increasingly a feature of the past (if it ever was much more than a myth). The resulting challenge of working out what roles and responsibilities this poses for corporations will test the imagination of all of us. We have a new book, Corporations and Citizenship, coming out later in the year with Cambridge University Press, which attempts to make a start on this question. But even we have to admit that we end up asking more questions than we answer. But, hey, you've got to start somewhere.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The torched journey of the torch

We have talked about the Olympics in Beijing 2008 in an earlier blog. So here we are again. It teaches us some fascinating lessons about the shift in politics globally.

After massive protests which partly stopped the journey of the Olympic torch in Paris yesterday, we are awaiting its arrival in San Francisco today. Pictures on TV don’t promise an exactly smooth further ride. With Richard Gere and Desmond Tutu among the protesters this will be another high profile spotlight on the fact that China – despite being an accepted player in the global economic community – by many is still considered a pariah in terms of democracy and human rights.

It is interesting to watch into which arena these inherently political issues have waned. Fair enough, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel as heads of two Western governments have cancelled their participation in the opening ceremony. A symbolic gesture of distancing from what some commentators see as re-run of the 1936 Olympics. Back then, another regime instrumentalized the Olympics for gaining international legitimacy.

But so far, most democratic leaders in the West have shied away from raising louder voices, let alone action. Also precious little so far to hear about Chinese ‘flame attendants’, ripping off Tibetan headbands from torchbearers or wrestling down protestors. These ‘men in blue’, according the BBC, ‘in fact, the cream of China’s armed police’, so far happily did their work on the streets of Athens, London or Paris.

So, the loudest and clearest voices come from the streets all around the globe. They are led by activists and citizens who voice their anger and concern. Their tactics are well known: linking their cause to high-profile events provides visibility to an otherwise neglected issue. Greenpeace, as we discuss in Case 10 in the book, has used this tactic successfully at the Sydney 2000 Olympics in introducing the Greenfreeze technology.

It will be exciting to watch how these dynamics will further unfold. It is highly likely that civil society protests will continue. From a business ethics perspective, the jury is out whether all the companies sponsoring the Olympics are in fact in for a major PR disaster. Executives at Coca Cola, Volkswagen or Adidas have a tricky nettle to grasp.

Not only is the value and integrity of their global brand at stake. Moreover, they all have elaborate policies on CSR, ethics or sustainability. Just as we speak, they might be well advised to revisit their take on the Beijing Olympics. We hope they have enough managers literate in business ethics to help them with this task.