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Carrying and Being Carried

Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?

To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)

For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.

The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.

Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.

However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.

Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)

And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)

The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.

Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.

A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:

“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”

I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.

Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”

In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”

So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?

[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]

Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel

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:

  • How are learnings from green factories consolidated and disseminated to other suppliers?
  • How do companies plan to continue to support sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives considering the drastic economic changes and the dire retail scenario?
  • What does fair trade have to do with sustainability?
  • Minimum wage Vs living wage
  • Trade barriers and the need for government support for green products
  • Why labour laws are not being followed? Are the laws outdated and impossible to follow? Are there any other reasons, which could be dealt with by companies themselves?
  • Can consumer consciousness and pressures be brought to bear? Does the question “Is the product I am buying ethically produced” come in the mind of an Indian consumer? Or even to the mind of the Indian retailer?
  • The need to address the core issue of unbalanced demand and supply of workforce in cities.
  • What should responsible and aware companies do to stop other companies from polluting rivers and water systems?
  • The role of village craft in providing learnings on efficient and responsible use of resources

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

Most corporate responsibility / sustainability initatives end up addressing only one of the dimensions to focus and simplify the action-points. However, the reality is that there are many areas where the Environment, the Community and the Organisation overlap with each other – many a time, when you ignore the interaction between these dimensions, you get totally divergent opinions. And the point of view related to your own history, geography and experiences, further colour the opinion. The individual – “I” – as a citizen, as a corporate manager, as a parent of future generations, or in any other role, is at the overlap of all three external dimensions. That should tell us something about where the action needs to be initiated.
(The post continues under the graphic below…)

The Individual and the External Dimensions of Corporate Responsibility, Community, CSR, fairtrade, labour

(Post continuing from above.)

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):

  • child / family labour
  • fair pricing and fair compensation across the supply chain, including consumer, retailer, supplier, workers
  • replacement of cottage scale production with large-scale industrial production of goods
  • setting up production in cities versus in villages
  • organic versus inorganic
  • synthetic / genetically modified versus natural raw materials

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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