Monday, November 23, 2009

Here’s to Communism!

A while ago we blogged about the bizarre usages of the term ‘socialism’ in North America. But in an attempt to be fair, we have to say they are not the only ones. Today’s blog comes from the Indian state of Kerala, where we find an equally fudged notion of, this time, ‘communism’, albeit in a slightly different way.

Kerala, back in 1957, was the first ever state in the world to freely and democratically elect, yes, a communist government. The communists have been in power there for most of the time ever since. On closer examination though, it is not really communist: Kerala, by and large, still is basically part of capitalist and free market system, most notably with private property of the means of production. So this is the slight misnomer then, it’s more a government strongly committed to social-democratic policies.

This said, however, it is fairly impressive to see the track record of those ‘communists’. Kerala is a success story, ‘the most socially advanced state in India’ according to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Land reform, infrastructure investment, good health care and education systems have put Kerala at the top of most developing countries globally. Its literacy rate of 91% is the highest in the developing world and its life expectancy (73 years) is 10 years higher than the Indian average. Infant mortality rates are a fifth of the entire Indian subcontinent.

So the Kerala story – labels aside – is a success story. And it shows that it is possible to change social and economic conditions with policies which are geared towards the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’, see Chapter 2 in Crane&Matten. In this context it is also illuminating to see that Kerala boasts a vibrant, powerful and active civil society movement. Our readers will recollect that we have an Ethics in Action box on Coca Cola’s fate in Kerala some years ago in Chapter 11 of our book. It was here, where a global protest movement started. And as we are happy to point out, it was here, where some of the most innovative policies of a multinational company with regard to water management were triggered. In some ways, Coca Cola benefitted from the vibrant civil society and NGO scene in Kerala…

All said then, it is no surprise that the ‘communism’ label has deterred investment by corporations and Kerala suffers from it. The only major source of extra business opportunities then is tourism. Crane&Matten are more than happy to hasten to rescue here…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


While in New York recently, we took in Edward Burtynsky’s latest exhibition, ‘Oil’, at the Hasted Hunt Kreutler Gallery in Chelsea. It’s an impressive collection, put together over more than a decade, and tracing the value chain of oil from extraction to use, and disposal.

Some of the shots are simply stunning, more akin to abstract art than photojournalism. From Australian mines to Azerbaijani wells, and Shanghai car factories to LA freeways the overwhelming scale and embeddedness of oil as a feature of the contemporary global landscape is thrown right in our faces. Burtynsky’s large format pictures are simultaneously shocking and beautiful, prompting for us a strong, but somewhat ambiguous response. Yes, this addiction to oil has got out of hand; yes, our thirst for oil has ravaged the environment; but, wow, isn’t this pinnacle of modernity also in some ways just downright amazing?

Now for those of us interested in issues of corporate responsibility such ambiguity is nothing new. Balancing the good with the bad, the value creation for some with the value destruction for others, is what much of what our field is all about. But Burtynsky takes this a little further. By seeking to absorb us in the global experience of oil, by joining up the dots in ways that make us want to learn more about what we’re looking at, what we are … yes, enjoying, he draws into the debate not just business ethics nerds like Crane and Matten, but also people that might like a good picture but who might never otherwise give much of a second thought to the ‘oil problem’.

Burtynsky’s exhibition, which is showing simultaneously in New York, Toronto and Washington, is also accompanied by a book, also called simply ‘Oil’. As he says in the introduction:

“In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil and the mechanical advantage of the internal combustion engine. It was then that I began the oil project. Over the next ten years I researched and photographed the largest oil fields I could find. I went on to make images of refineries, freeway interchanges, automobile plants and the scrap industry that results from the recycling of cars. Then I began to look at the culture of oil, the motor culture, where masses of people congregate around vehicles, with vehicle events as the main attraction. These images can be seen as notations by one artist contemplating the world as it is made possible through this vital energy resource and the cumulative effects of industrial evolution.”

Growing up in Ontario as the son of a former GM worker, Burtynsky had his initiation into these cumulative effects at first hand. He has described for instance how his father’s death from cancer (and that of many of his co-workers) might be linked to PCBs in oil used in the workplace. The moral ambivalence of flying in a helicopter to take beautiful shots of the substance that likely killed his father injects an urgency into his work that makes it all the more compelling. Of course, as fellow Ontarians now, this has particular resonance for us. It’s perhaps no surprise that a Burtynsky piece hangs in the boardroom on our school … and next week the film based on his work, Manufactured Landscapes, is going to be shown in our Responsible Business Movie Night series. But Burtynsky speaks not just to his neighbours; his captivating depictions of the global culture built around oil have something for everyone. And you don’t even need to grow your carbon footprint flying to New York to see it. Click here for some large format shots at Photo District News and here for some previews from The Guardian newspaper.

Friday, November 13, 2009

‘Responsible Luxury’

If one takes a taxi from the airport in Bangalore, India, into the city, the first billboard you will see boasts the words: ‘Responsible Luxury!’ It's an ad for a hotel chain, presumably one of those that recently opened another 7-star hotel in the business processing outsourcing capital of the world.

Whatever this phrase means - it pretty much uncovers the enormous contrasts and ambiguities of the economic wonder in India, much of which are epitomized in the 8m population of Bangalore. On the one hand there are the shiny, super stylish office buildings – or ‘campuses’ – of many western and Indian MNCs which have made the city the world’s leading place for IT services and software development. Being on the premises of these companies feels a lot like being in an office environment somewhere in North America or Europe.

On the other hand, Bangalore is a typical ‘third world city’ with constantly jammed up streets, poverty, pollution and shanty towns. The difference between the luxuries of the ‘first’ and the plights of the ‘third’ world could be nowhere more visible.

Now, there are two ways of going about this gap. One option would be to just hermetically isolate those two worlds against each other. We mentioned this approach – referred to as ‘brazilianization’ - in another blog. By the looks of it though, this is not the way things are going in India. India is a long standing democracy, has a vibrant media scene and fairly strong civil society organizations. So what we see here is more an ongoing struggle between these two worlds.

It is interesting to see the role of business in this. For sure, there is a long tradition of business engagement for social needs in India. Companies such as Tata and others have a long legacy of philanthropy and many of the new IT ‘stars’ such as Infosys have followed their example. Talking to business people here one can see a sincere commitment to not just indulge in the luxuries brought along by a booming IT industry but rather make it trickle down to wider parts of society. Responsible Luxury, as it were. How good a proposition that is and if it works ... well, we'll just have to keep you posted.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The state of CSR in Canada

In our last post we commented on the No.1 position claimed by the Schulich School of Business in Toronto in the Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking of business schools – a global survey which assesses the performance of schools in integrating responsible business into MBA curricula and research. Overall, Canadian business schools did well in the ranking with several schools making the top 50 – McGill (31st), Concordia (34th), and the University of British Columbia (49th).

But though Canadian business schools are starting to punch above their weight in the world of responsible business education, the performance of the country’s corporate sector in responsible business practice remains in question. For example, you’d be hard pressed to find any Canadian companies in the top 50 of Corporate Responsibility Officer’s Best Corporate Citizens of 2009. Still, rankings like this don’t tell you everything. So we thought we’d take the pulse of responsible business in Canada by checking out a couple of practitioner conferences taking place in downtown Toronto this last week. Clearly it is full-on conference season in Canada’s responsible business community with 3 major gatherings happening in 2 weeks – the first two of which we dipped into to test the waters.

First up was the ‘In Good Company’ CSR Conference organized by the Orenda consulting firm that took place on Tuesday 27th October 2009. This was a first-time outing for Orenda on the CSR conference circuit, and it was interesting to see the differences with some of the more mainstream conferences. We didn’t stay for the whole event but it was notable just how much the CSR agenda here was dominated by corporate community investment (CI) issues. This no doubt reflected to some extent the particular orientation of the consultancy running the show, but still, it was something of a surprise for a gig billed as a ‘CSR conference’. As Peggie Pelosi, the CEO of Orenda told us, the event was mainly aimed at engaging SMEs – and issues like CI are where most of them are with respects to CSR.

That said, the level of expertise demonstrated by the speakers on CI was pretty impressive. Clearly the leaders in Canada have been quick on the uptake in terms of developing well-managed CI programs with plenty of measurable impacts and meaningful metrics, good attention to employee involvement, and a genuine desire to both make a positive social contribution and generate greater meaning for employees. All good stuff, even with what looks like relatively limited resources compared to some of their overseas counterparts.

Strikingly missing from much of the debate however was a genuinely strategic approach to CI where firms focus their attention not just on doing good, but on leveraging their own competencies, and focusing on social problems within their own value chain or ‘sphere of influence’. Given we are in the middle of a financial crisis, and an energy situation that is rapidly heating the planet, it was somewhat disconcerting to hear a finance company talking about investments in homework clubs, tree planting and affordable home-building, whilst an energy firm regaled us with stories of their success in supporting food banks. All very laudable, and all very successful, but haven’t they got more pressing business-critical social issues they should be concentrating on? Aren’t food banks just a bit of a distraction when we’ve got climate change to solve? To be honest it was quite a relief when the Director of Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft got up and starting talking about investments in technology projects. Here was clearly a company that demonstrated that it got CSR in a deeper way.

And so it was onto the Conference Board of Canada event ‘Creating Business Value with Integrated Sustainability’ two days later. Unsurprisingly a somewhat more suited-up corporate event, but again one where, with one or two notable exceptions, the real leaders seemed to be, like Microsoft Canada over at the Orenda event, the Canadian subsidiaries of US corporations who had picked up their best tricks from over the border …. or even back in Europe. Companies like the American carpet manufacturer Interface, or even IBM, appear to be leading the pack here. And it's regulation from Europe that appears to be driving attention to environmental issues - though whether catching up with Europe's regulatory requirements is really a 'proactive' strategy, as one presenter claimed, is a moot point.

Funny how Canada manages to maintain a reputation for being all socially responsible and environmentally friendly, when corporate Canada actually seems to be dragging its feet somewhat in developing a progressive approach to responsible business. Obviously we didn’t hear everything said at either event. But from what we could gather from our admittedly brief forays into both of them, the debate here seems little more than a warmed up version of what we were hearing in the UK and other places years ago.

This is not to say there are not some impressive movers and shakers in the corporate CSR world here – but whole sectors of the economy don’t appear to have quite got it yet. The Conference Board organizers had put together a good program, but in oil and minerals rich Canada where were the energy and mining companies with something to say about ‘creating business value with integrated sustainability’? Holed up in the tar sands no doubt. Still, it was good to see consumer products companies at least starting to think seriously about green innovation issues.

So what can we conclude from our conference crawl this week? Well, let’s just say that Canada still has plenty of untapped potential when it comes to responsible business. As Peggie Pelosi acknowledged, Canadian companies are doing a pretty good job on community investment initiatives but are still well behind their overseas counterparts in sustainability and other key areas of CSR practice. As glass-half-full kind of guys, we’d like to think this means that Canada has a real opportunity to leapfrog the US, the UK and others. But we won’t be holding our breath….

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