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


4 comments:

  1. A good article outlining great CSR stories evolved in 2013.

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  2. Thanks Andy & Dirk - a great distillation of a busy year

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  3. Thanks for this! Just shared with my MBA accounting class where we are discussing accounting fraud.

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  4. Great post! Been reading a lot about corporate responsibility. Thanks for sharing this!

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