At the outset let me mention the fact that in the title of this post lies a Freudian slip. The intended title was “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Labels”. But the new – unintended – title captures the thought perfectly. (And I’ll come back to that in closing.)
Third Eyesight was recently asked by a multi-billion dollar global consumer brand to facilitate a round-table discussion focussing on the issue of how to drive ethical behaviour and sustainable business models into their sector. This company has a well documented strategy and action plan until 2020, and their team was travelling together in India visiting other corporate and non-corporate initiatives, to learn from them.
For the round table, we brought together brands, retailers, manufacturers, compliance audit and certification agencies, craft and community oriented organisations and non-government organisations (NGOs working on environment stewardship. Some were intrinsically linked to the consumer goods / retail sector, others were not. Among those present was Ramon Magsaysay award winner Mr. Rajendra Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organisation that has, over the last several years, worked in recharging thousands of water reservoirs leading to the rebirth of several rivers.
The diversity (and sometimes total divergence) in views among the participants was a powerful driver for the debate during the day, which was the main intention behind having a really mixed group.
(Try this experiment yourself. Get a bunch of people together who define their work as being in the “corporate responsibility” stream. Then ask them the meaning of that phrase, and watch the entirely different tracks people move on. You might be left wondering, whether they are really working towards a common goal.)
At the end, though, the result was productive, since the divergent perspectives opened avenues that may have previously not been visible.
In the case of our discussion, the topics that were covered included labour standards and compliance, reduction of the product development footprint, closed-loop supply chains, water management, organic raw materials, energy conservation and community involvement in business. Some of the issues raised were:
My view is that these diverse areas and views can be aligned most effectively if we look at responsibility and sustainability in all its dimensions. These dimensions, to my mind, are:
– The Environment
– The Community
– The Organisation
– The Individual
Here is a suggested list to start with, which we can use to try out thought-experiments, viewing each issue in different dimensions and from different points of view (for example, buyer based in a developed market, supplier based in a developing country, an individual working in the supply chain, his family and broader community):
In closing, let me come back to “Babel”. According to the Book of Genesis, a huge tower was built “to the heavens” to demonstrate the achievement of the people of Babylon who all spoke a single language, and to bind them together into a common identity. God apparently was not particularly happy with this self-glorifying attitude, and gave the people different languages and scattered them across the earth.
Whatever your religious (or non-religious) affiliation, this story holds a gem of a lesson.
No matter how noble the cause of the corporate responsibility warrior, it is good to be humble and allow diversity rather than trying to capture everyone under one monolith with an apparently common goal. The diversity may be a lot more productive and help to spread the benefits wider than one single initiative.
The day that we spent on the sustainability round-table certainly demonstrated that very well.
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For those who are familiar with Kutchh, and its people, there is no doubt that it is one of the most active hotbeds of entrepreneurship. A lot of the business in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, is in the hands of the ‘kutchhis’ (those from Kutchh). Many of India’s largest companies and financial heavyweights are from this region, while Surat has been a force to reckon with in the global diamond trade. Amidst all this, one of the most interesting group that I have come across are the craftspeople and artisans working with traditional methods of craft – textiles, metal, wood, leather etc.
Beyond the timeless creative wealth that traditional craft creates, a conversation with one such craftsman – a handloom weaver – highlighted to me the value of crafts as a force of entrepreneurship. While talking about the world in general, his choices in life etc., he said that the strongest reason for him to stick to his family’s handloom tradition was the fact that he was an entrepreneur. He was his own boss, not reporting to anyone else, and his fortunes not subject to the whims and fancies of some better-educated higher-up in “a company”. To him, the sense of dignity from creating his own products and running his own trade was far more important than ‘earning more in a safe job’. An important learning to keep in mind during these times of hectic corporatization of Indian business.
The other aspect that is specifically important to the fashion / lifestyle products sector is the diversity of product base and the product development edge it provides the industry. The product development, design and merchandising capability is a backbone for the lifestyle / fashion / soft goods industry in India, that keeps it in the global competitive arena despite wheezing infrastructure, rising costs and other competitive inefficiencies.