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My latest for EarthPeople Media and the wonderful Anna Clark.

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Putting “Responsible Business” Out of Business

Christine Bader’s book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: Girl Meets Oil offers hope and practical advice for anyone trying to stimulate meaningful change in our multi-stakeholder, shareholder-beholden, profits-focused world. Doing this kind of work is hard, but then again, pretty much anything worthwhile usually is.

The book tells Christine’s story of working with BP before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and then with a United Nations effort to prevent and address human rights abuses linked to business. In addition to her own “Corporate Idealist” story, the book profiles other outsider-insiders who are working for positive change from within major corporations. The book concludes with a must-read Corporate Idealist Manifesto that makes room for morality as well as the business case.

I first met Christine at the 2014 Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego this past June where she was a panel moderator. At lunch one day, we started talking about the role of human rights in the CSR conversation and then continued our conversation later by phone. We started our call by talking about how strange it is that “Responsible Business” is a category at all.

Why do we accept that as the default?” said Christine. “It’s like saying, ‘Some of my money is in socially responsible mutual funds.’ But what does that mean the rest of my money is in? I think the whole mission is actually to make the ‘corporate idealist’ label and ‘responsible business’ redundant.”

From there we talked about collaborations, how human rights can add structure to the CSR conversation, and what’s ahead for the world’s Corporate Idealists:

Claire: I’m interested in the business collaborations that are starting to pop up in our world like We Mean Business, the new Risky Business Report, and everything that BSR is doing. What do you see coming for the CSR world in the near future? Do you believe that business will be able to affect US policy in the next four years?

Christine: Well, I mean business has always impacted policy in the US, and I think that some would argue that business has too much influence over policy in the US. But you’re asking a slightly different question, which is can business influence policy for the better?

In the US, certainly I think it’s clear that business does have the capacity to influence policy. And so, yes, I think that business standing up and saying climate change is important and we need policy can actually spur regulators to act because sometimes they’re reluctant to act because they assume that business wants nothing less than more regulation. But actually that is not the case. What business wants is consistent regulation and predictability. And right now business does not have that on the environment or on corporate responsibility more generally.

So, I’m not at all surprised that there are coalitions of companies calling for legislative action on climate change because they need certainty to be able to invest at the scale that we need them to and want them to.

Claire: Are you aligned with any of these coalitions or collaborations besides BSR?

Christine: I’m part of the Global Network Initiative, which is the voluntary initiative by Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! It was created by them, and a few other companies have joined since working with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and some academics, which is the capacity that I’m a part of that. And I’ve been involved with others over the years like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights when I at BP and the Business Leaders’ Initiative on Human Rights when I was working for the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights.

Q: Do you see any shifts happening in the industry for better business practices?

Christine: Yes. I think that these collaborative initiatives are really powerful. And I think they are really a positive trend. I really am heartened to see that companies realize that these are noncompetitive issues. At the beginning of the Global Network Initiative, seeing Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! get into a room with human rights groups was quite astounding. The extractive industries are sort of used to it because that’s part of their business. They’re fierce competitors, but they’re also joint venture partners in a lot of places around the world.

For the tech industry, it’s been interesting to see them on the same journey to build trust and recognize that these issues are noncompetitive, and that it behooves them to work together and to work with human rights groups. I think it was tough because a lot of tech companies are founded on the premise that they are all about free expression and changing the world. For them, it was new to say, “What do you mean we have problems and present risks to users? That’s not our intent.”

And of course it’s not their intent. But there are risks in many of their products and services. And so, to see them come around to collaboration with human rights groups has actually been really heartening. I think that’s really positive. I think companies and everybody else are understanding that these big issues will not be tackled by any company alone, and that collaboration is really the way forward.

Claire: Any predictions about what may be ahead for breakthroughs?

Christine: I think that it will be really interesting to see how the the role of human rights in this conversation evolves in the next few years because the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011 was a really big milestone. It was the first time that there was multi-stakeholder, global consensus on the human rights responsibilities of corporations.

I think that it’s a really helpful framework for companies to use because there is a universal declaration of human rights that was agreed more than 60 years ago by the international community. It’s helpful because there is no universal declaration of sustainability or CSR. And I think that’s where a lot of the frustration with CSR emanates from because companies have to kind of figure it out for themselves.

Claire: Where do you see openings or possibilities for companies to bring human rights more into the CSR conversation?

Christine: One of the things that I’m doing right now is facilitating a human rights working group for BSR. This is a few dozen member companies across industries who come together every couple of months to talk about how to integrate human rights into their companies. And I don’t think any of them have human rights in their titles. But they know that this is important and that it’s helpful and that the guiding principles are now an expectation of stakeholders.

Claire: How are you getting the message about being a corporate idealist out, in addition to speaking at industry and CSR events?

Christine: One important way is to speak at business schools. And when I go, I’m not just speaking to the Net Impact club or sustainability varsity team. Second is the writing that I’m doing in the general media, that I hope serves some of that purpose as well. The ones for The Atlantic have totally caught fire. And I’ve been a guest a couple of times on a BBC World service show called Business Matters.

Claire: How can we help people move past the blocks of not wanting to think about things like child labor or human rights abuses?

Christine: A couple of the people who I interviewed who work in the supply chains said that there are a couple of different stages to their work. The first one is building awareness of issues like child and forced labor in their supply chains.

The second stage, which is perhaps more important, is getting their colleagues past wanting to say, “Oh my God, there’s a kid there. Cut and run.” It’s their job to try to explain that running from the situation will actually make it worse for the children. I think we’re all trying to figure out how to move into the next phase, which is addressing root causes.

Claire: Well, it’s incredibly helpful because that really diagnoses the problem and gives you a chance to fix it for good.

Christine: I think a lot of people are coming to recognize that having a multinational company in a developing country can help shine a light and help bring good practice.

Claire: What else can Corporate Idealists do to help their companies be better?

Christine: Know that sharing the stories of the people and communities that a company affects is part of your job. So many people that I interviewed talked about how important it was for them to get out in the field, for them not to lose sight of the workers in the factories and in the communities. And then bring those stories back into headquarters. I mean spreadsheets are important, but they only get you so far. Whether it was telling stories or bringing in photos or arranging senior executive trips out to the field, it was so important to bear witness. That’s when people really get it.

Here’s my latest for Sustainable Brands.

Previous articles in this series talked about leading businesses taking bold steps on their own for the common good — because it’s the right thing to do — even if it costs the company financially in the short term.

This time I want to point to the latest wave of businesses working collaboratively on the urgent, common ground issues of renewable energy and climate policy. In America’s history of westward expansion and exploration, pioneer families came together in wagon trains for mutual support. In the same way, the examples below show that businesses are taking action, together, to ensure a more certain future that’s good for all of us and for business.

To start off, a June 2014 clean energy report by Ceres, WWF and Calvert Investments supports the idea that this trend is gaining momentum. The report makes the case that big US companies are already investing in renewable energy as a basic “business as usual” material issue, including UPS, Cisco Systems, PepsiCo, United Continental and General Motors. These and the other companies in the report have already saved a billion dollars in energy costs and upped their business planning certainty. Far from a fringe or boutique concern, renewable energy investment is about knowing where your energy is going to come from tomorrow, and having some sense of how much it will cost.

It’s worth noting that several cross-sector partnerships and multi-stakeholder groups for climate issues have been working on these issues for years. The UK- and EU-focused Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group first convened in 2007. And the US-focused group BICEP has been advocating for energy and climate legislation since 2008, with its Climate Declaration attracting over 700 corporate signatories to date. (For more examples of creative, effective partnerships on climate-impacting issues, take a look at Sustainable Brands’ collaboration and co-creation channel.)

But just in the past three months, there have been several high-profile announcements, as well as one intriguing low-key entry. These are four groups to watch:

1. March 2014 — Business Alliance for the Future Meets for First Time
The Business Alliance for the Future is a new alliance of alliances that’s being organized and supported by about 40 business affiliations including BSR, B Team, Ceres, World Business Academy, SVN, National Association of Women Business Owners, Young Presidents’ Organization and others to “to connect, magnify and exponentially accelerate, business’ role in building a world where business excels, people thrive and nature flourishes.”

The group first met in March in Santa Barbara, CA and it is scheduled to meet again in October at the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western University. The Alliance is formulating its strategy around the intention to dramatically impact existing game-changing projects (to the tune of 5x in 5 years) by fostering action-oriented collaboration.

According to Alliance member Jeana Wirtenberg, co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, who is heading up one of the working groups, “There are several collaborative action team initiatives already well under way, including: amplifying and spreading a new business narrative; creating 100 percent renewable energy economy; participating, aligning around, and designing a grand economic strategy; and developing and implementing a new corporate scorecard and metrics.”

2. May 2014 — We Mean Business Coalition Launches
While we don’t have specifics yet about what this group will tackle, We Mean Business stated goal on their website is to call for “ambitious climate policy and bold climate action.” The group is like a super-pod of business action leadership, with partners from BSR, CERES, CDP, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Climate Group, and the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, in conjunction with Nike and IKEA.

3. June 2014 — Small Business Poll Shows Support for Market-Stabilizing Rules
In late June, the American Sustainable Business Council released poll results showing that US small business owners support climate rules for market stability and predictability.

The survey found that “clear majorities of small business owners are concerned about how climate change will affect their companies, including its impact on energy costs, health care costs and the infrastructure they depend on. Survey respondents voiced strong support for government action to address climate change, specifically, efforts to limit carbon pollution from power plants which produce a third of all U.S. carbon emissions.”

I find this poll interesting because it shows that leaders from small US businesses are on the same page when it comes to wanting business certainty in the face of climate instability as many of their colleagues at global behemoths.

4. July 2014 — Launch of Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles
And on July 11, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) announced that 12 major companies — spanning communications, manufacturing, consumer goods and tech — are jointly asking utilities and energy suppliers to offer more renewable energy products.

The Buyers’ Principles provide a coordinated starting point for what these companies need in terms of options, financing, contracts and emissions levels. The inaugural signers are Bloomberg, Facebook, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Novelis, Procter and Gamble, REI, Sprint, and Walmart. I’m hoping that this will be an unmistakable unmet need signal to the energy market that yes, business wants more renewables and is willing to pay for them.

In my mind, these groups are coming together now for one profound reason. With government paralysis on one side and entrenched lobbying for the fossil fuel status quo on the other, the Cavalry isn’t coming. If renewable energy and climate action are going to be truly become Business as Usual for successful companies — as Ceres’ clean energy report posits — then business has to make it happen.

Together, I see all these efforts leading up to this September’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, where business will be asked to take on larger and more meaningful commitments. Just last week, the UN event’s organizers and partners called for business leaders willing to stand up for carbon pricing “as a necessary and effective measure to tackle climate change.”

And then, it will be time to take all this positive forward momentum to the COP21 meeting in Paris in December 2015. That’s where, once again, the entire world will attempt to agree on climate action and who is going to pay for it. I’m hopeful that, by the time we get there, collaborative efforts like these will have blazed the trail for business to be a major part of the solution.

Here’s my feature story from Day 1 of the Sustainable Brands ’14 conference, held June 1-4 in San Diego, CA.

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Getting to Zero: Multiple Sectors Convene Around Deforestation at SB ’14 San Diego

When all the right people work together — from suppliers to brands who use their products to NGOs — and commit to extraordinary goals, transformational change is not only possible, it happens.

That’s what participants saw in action at Monday’s afternoon workshop on progress being made and the work ahead to support the emerging “new norm” of zero deforestation in forestry supply chain standards. Major responsible sourcing commitments in forestry in the past few years are helping protect rainforests, promote safe labor practices, and drive down carbon emissions.

Future 500 CEO Bill Shireman led a conversation with major forestry supplier Asia Paper and Pulp (APP), leading consumer-facing brands, and NGOs. Setting the stage, he said, “We’re seeing the roles that different groups play in the process of transformation—to create tipping points where change becomes transformative.”

Fresh off a 20-hour plane ride, Aida Greenbury, APP’s Managing Director for Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement, shared how her company’s historic 2013 Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) came about after years of activism — transformed into collaboration — with NGO partners The Forest Trust and Greenpeace. Speaking of APP’s commitments, and the contentious path to get there, Greenbury said, “It’s an unfolding story of relationships, customer requests, conversations, friction and all the history behind it.”

Senior brand leaders on the panel included Kevin Petrie from Nestlé North America, Mark Buckley of Staples, and Sarah Severn from Nike. Robin Barr from The Forest Trust, Greenpeace’s Amy Moas, and Chris Elliot from Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA) represented the NGO communities.

A key theme was the process of building personal relationships based on trust in the midst of fierce disagreements on business practices, complicated and opaque supply chains, and remote physical locations. Speaking about what makes groundbreaking environmental commitments possible, Robin Barr, director of The Forest Trust said: “Transparency is the best way to build trust. You have to engage in a conversation on transformation.”

Barr discussed the importance of helping suppliers and brands recognize their responsibilities and roles to solve global problems like deforestation: “We’re all responsible because we’re all in the same supply chain.” And on the power of brands to lead change, she said, “Brands have the potential to make a difference. When you ask your suppliers to do something different or meet standards, that means something to them.”

“When one player changes the way they operate, the situation changes,” she saiid.

Shifting to the brand perspective, Kevin Petrie shared how Nestlé’s Creating Shared Value program for water, nutrition and rural development responsibility led to the company’s 2010 announcement that Nestlé products will not be associated with deforestation. And from there, how this led to responsible palm oil sourcing commitments.

A fascinating part of the discussion centered on the complicated issues brands face reestablishing purchasing relationships, once supplier deforestation commitments are in place and shown to be working. Mark Buckley, VP of Environmental Affairs at Staples, shared the challenges of moving away from a supplier relationship and then stepping back into it. Petrie noted that Nestlé will examine buying from APP again once assurance audits are done.

As well as the relationship between suppliers, brands and NGOs, brands are working together on issues where they share common interests, specifically climate policy. Severn spoke about her company’s collaborations with other leading brands as a BICEP founding member, a Climate Declaration signatory, and the We Mean Business coalition.

“It’s not good enough to be silent,” she said. “Our legislators need to know that companies care.”

The roundtable was the first meeting of a new multi-stakeholder initiative led by Future 500 and Sustainable Brands. The group seeks to bring together major brands, suppliers and NGOs to solve problems by redesigning how stakeholders can work together, instead of as combatants, to fully tap the power of supply chains to drive sustainability. Shireman encouraged anyone interested in participating in future conservations like this to contact him.

This conversation continues today at a 2pm breakout session on Avery Dennison’s responsible paper sourcing policy in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.

Summing up the roundtable, Shireman referred to each responsible sourcing commitment as a domino, or multiplier, for reaching the tipping point of zero deforestation. Greenpeace’s Moas pointed to last December’s unprecedented No Deforestation announcement by Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm trader, and that new palm oil commitments are being announced nearly every month.

While global deforestation is still an ongoing crisis, this conversation showed that progress is happening. “As solutions get developed and prove successful in the marketplace, you can no longer say it’s not possible,” said Barr.