The TakeAway: The blooms of sustainable prosperity and justice are fed by at least twelve currents that will get stronger throughout 2012. They involve the maturation of corporate social responsibility and corporate governance; rethinking the meaning of “fiduciary”; balancing internationalism and globalization with “local first” movements; social sustainability impact; the evolution of stakeholder engagement; the knowledge explosion and new tools / language; the importance of formal and informal education; serious action on climate, including disaster readiness and resilience; and the power of individual action.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air—love lost, love gained, love just around the corner. A good time to open our hearts, not just to people who strike our fancy, but to larger questions of purpose and meaning, and the promise of a better life. So here’s a bouquet—not of roses, but another kind of bloom, the kind that remains fragrant as long as it’s watered and nourished.
Last month I said it was time to “get off the couch” and get moving. This post continues that theme by taking you outside and identifying twelve currents in 2012 that feed the blooms of sustainable prosperity and justice—and areas that need special care. No doubt there are many more, but these are the ones I keep thinking about. Over the coming weeks, I’ll go into each more in-depth. But first, a word about context.
The Purpose of Economic Arrangements
Before smelling the posies, let’s zoom out and look at the bigger garden of earthly delights, affecting our politics and polity. Within the U.S. and abroad, questions about the purpose of economic arrangements have risen, not just among sustainability “insiders” but in our political rhetoric, and not just in our Presidential primary campaign, but due to the efforts of Occupy Wall Street and other high-profile developments, such as a series of New York Times articles on the exploitation of workers in Apple’s supply chain. This is a good thing, if we can get beyond sloganeering and bromides. These questions inexorably are bound up in beliefs, values, and commitments regarding the purpose and meaning of capitalism—along with its enabling structures, rules, implementation, and enforcement policies. They’re profound questions that don’t get asked enough without resorting to polemics and posturing.
Within the sprawling business and sustainability movement, as improvements on reporting, accountability, and stakeholder engagement continue to occur, we need to step back every once in awhile and ask ourselves “Why are we doing this? To what aim are our efforts directed?” The maturation of CSR, corporate governance, and sustainability as concepts enable the maturation of them as part of a broader movement. This involves scale and scope—across industries, geographical boundaries, political and social ideologies – and how economies can be revitalized to balance individual prosperity with the common good. It’s not enough to assure socially responsible corporate behavior if the context in which that behavior exists is unjust, or if violations of agreed-to commitments continue to occur, or if there are no means to determine whether and if progress toward sustainability and justice has occurred.
Applied to business entities, this involves the purpose of the firm, and how, in a world wherein hierarchies have become flattened, companies are expected to behave when the actions of a few affect so many. Applied to investors, it involves revisiting the purpose of investment, and how “fiduciary obligation” and “return on investment” are to be defined and measured. Applied to both the corporations and investors, it involves drawing from the civic moral principles associated with wealth-generation and management, articulated over centuries by the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions.
And it means tapping into power we didn’t know we had, not only to hold existing systems accountable, but to create our own economic systems that embed values, both financial and non-financial, in the most generous meaning of that term.
That’s the context in which these blooms and currents exist, where they’ll either thrive, or shrivel. It’s up to us as to which fate they await.
Here’s a rundown, with more to come over the next several weeks. There’s more on the first because I’ve run out of room, and still have to celebrate Valentine’s Day before it’s too late. But you get the idea—these currents are going to be around for awhile, and the petals will continue to unfold.
Here’s to endless love!
Twelve for ’12
1. CSR Comes of Age │ Corporate social responsibility has come of age, nearing a “tipping point” (that’s the basis of a report issued January 24th by the MITSloan Management Review in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group) as it gets more firmly anchored within corporate headquarters thinking.
The explosion in the number of companies issuing annual sustainability reports; the maturation of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting framework (the fourth generation of GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, or G4, currently are under development, with expected launch late next year); the movement to “Integrated Reporting”; changing definitions of “materiality” and the emergence of new groups such as the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which will further anchor materiality of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risk into disclosure and risk-management mindsets; changes in the regulatory and reporting environment, including the on-demand, digital means enabled by XBRL; rapid growth in the number of professionals and practitioners in the field; and the emergence of different corporate structures, most prominent among them B-Corporations (“B” is for “benefit”), and producer and consumer cooperatives (the U.N. has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives) exemplify this. Indeed, since its launch eight years ago, Boston-based Corporation 2020 has worked to create a vision and principles for corporate design that moves social purpose from the periphery to the heart of corporate activity.
Yet with all these positive developments, important challenges remain affecting both the inside of the firm, all the way to the board, and the outside of the firm, including stakeholders and a wider socio-political environment.
Within the firm, how can the values and commitments of CSR and sustainability engage other employees, particularly C-Suite executives and managers? How can wider professional knowledge and competence be cultivated throughout the organization to advance ESG and sustainability objectives? How can the board be engaged, where interest in and knowledge of CSR remains limited?
On the outside, what about those supply chains, and the wider desire of communities to eradicate poverty and improve their standard of living? What’s the role of responsible business in developing, divided, and post-conflict societies, taking into consideration human rights and climate change, particularly in areas such as the Middle East that continue to be hotbeds of conflict and where the status of women still lags? How can CSR / sustainability professionals avoid the dangers of segmentation and parochialism, once they’ve achieved some measure of success within their spheres of influence?
Perhaps most important, how can this work connect to a broader population of regular people, who can help inform and support it—and vice-versa? Indeed, this speaks directly to how capitalism can be directed to the common good, to sustainable development, an idea under discussion in a number of places—but in need of broader embrace within the United States.
Stay tuned for more updates on these and related issues as we celebrate the maturation of a movement and continue to push for improvements.
2. Corporate Governance for Good: “GovBites”
3. Stewardship: Reviving the Fiduciary Obligation for Corporate, Investor Boards
4. The New Internationalism / Globalization
5. “People First” and “Local First” Movements – and Urbanism’s Comeback
6. From Good Intentions to Impact: Social Sustainability and the Common Good
7. The Evolution of Stakeholder Engagement
8. Better Tools: Data Management and Analytics, Information Diets, and a New Vocabulary / Lexicon
9. Education, Education, Education
10. Serious Action on Climate
11. Disaster Readiness and Resilience
12. The Power of One