Reflections on a year promoting responsible enterprise
Posted by jembendell on January 9, 2011
Lifeworth Consulting is a social enterprise that promotes sustainable development through influencing enterprise and investment. We also run Lifeworth.com, the jobs portal for responsible enterprise. Reflecting on our year, in each of our specialist areas during 2010 we sensed people realising the need for far greater change than they currently seek in their own organisations, and some confusion about how to deal with that gap between awareness and action. We’ve been seeking to help.
We analyse, educate and advise on global changes in business-society relations and how to influence and respond to these changes in helpful ways (Enterprise Trends). Our activities and outputs in 2010 responded to this growing desire for transformation, working with the UN, GTZ as well as CSR networks in Asia to contextualise the key challenges for CSR and responsible investment in the coming years. We also analyse, educate, and advise on the specific practice of cross-sector relations, including partnerships between business and public interest organisations like the UN and NGOs (Engaging Change). We find that the desire to attempt transformational change counters some of the negative effects of growing demands for numerical scores on project effectiveness in challenging funding environment. Social change can be tough, and requires new ways to assess progress, although not ones that see a partnership’s existence itself as the goal. We brought that perspective to our work with UN agencies and NGOs during the year, as well as through the teaching of courses and publishing of papers.
Our third work programme is the focus of our corporate strategy advisory work, where we help high-end brands to develop their approach to achieving social and environmental excellence (Authentic Luxury). It is topic we were busy with in 2010, but mostly with research, lectures and media. The companies in this sector are not moving as rapidly as we had imagined they might, given the strong business case for prestige brands to out perform on social and environmental issues. We worked with a couple of companies on their CSR strategies, but are yet to see wider demand for support to develop and execute ambitious and creative approaches.
Below we summarise some of the activities, and more importantly, the resources we have produced as a result, most of which are freely downloadable via the links. In addition we highlight what’s coming next, and how it relates to the key responsible enterprise and responsible finance challenges of 2011.
The contemporary incarnations of CSR and Responsible Investment have been around for some time. So what is its extent, worldwide? And what does it mean for the actual social, environmental and governance performance of companies and investors? It is time for some global analysis on these questions. So we worked with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to co-edit their first global overview of the state of CSR and RI communications. The main conclusion was that as commitments to CSR and RI are now so widespread yet communications on impacts so diverse and unclear, it is time to see more standardisation, with public interests in mind. I shared some insights from that at a session on the future of CSR communications at the CSR Singapore conference. During the year we conducted a study on the performance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) analysts and raters, speaking to leaders and stakeholders in this sector from around the world. My interview with UNPRI Executive Director, Dr James Gifford was recorded. In February we will publish the study, which identifies 9 flaws in current mainstream ESG practice, and makes recommendations for how to fix them, including the development of a multi-stakeholder code of conduct for ESG analysts and raters. The study will be serialised and open for discussion on the ESG Investing discussion group. In 2011 we will also continue our work with UNCTAD to map the progress of private standards for CSR and RI, and what the public policy implications may be.
2010 saw growing interest in the role of business in development. Our interest in development does not arise from companies and investors beginning to engage in this issue, but from a long standing interest in in cultural exchange, how societies progress or not, and shared global challenges. From that perspective we see potential, but also some gross assumptions from people coming at development from the business world. We released our study on this area, outlining the need for a new management system for pro-development business. That followed up a keynote at the launch of the first MDG Scan report by National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (NCDO). We also published a major study on a key issue for social progress that has been almost entirely overlooked by CSR and RI until now – economic inequality. Given government spending cuts in many parts of the world, rising prices for basic needs, while banker salaries and bonuses remain high, matters of economic inequality are likely to gain more attention in 2011, and demand more attention from the private sector. In addition to this research work, we were pleased to help the UN, GTZ and ArcelorMittal in Liberia. My colleague Emma Irwin designed and facilitated a workshop to help executives to understand the financial and moral imperatives of integrating Human Rights into their management systems, as well as how to begin that process.
Aside from the rising interest in development, the six CSR trends I identified in my last book, The Corporate Responsibility Movement, appeared to strengthen during 2010. I presented these trends of standardising, mainstreaming, integrating, levelling, enterprising and yoyoing to special events hosted by CSR Singapore and CSR Geneva. The growing desire for transformational change inspired more people to explore ‘design thinking’ as a mechanism for developing products and business models that can help create fair and sustainable societies. My colleague Ian Doyle led an exploration of what ‘design thinking’ can offer CSR and sustainability professions, which we published in the Journal of Corporate Citizenship. I shared some of these ideas in a keynote at a workshop for youth on design thinking for social change, run by Syinc in Singapore. I reflected on how there is no magic bullet for social change, and that an ability to struggle with forces of inertia is key to our effectiveness.
If we seek transformation then we seek to understand the root causes of the problems we experience, and a vision of the kind of system we wish to bring into being. In looking back at 2009 we sensed that more people in the CSR and RI fields were having such discussions: and therefore capitalism was being debated. Our annual review of CSR was called “Capitalism in Question” and in it we offered a concept of economic system that integrates principles of capital and democracy. In 2011 we will share this further by an article in Singapore Management University’s Social Space, and in the book Healing Capitalism, to be published by Greenleaf in September, co-edited by my colleague Ian Doyle.
Sensing what is needed is different from knowing how to bring it into being. A core theme of our work for decades has been the potential and pitfalls of cross-sectoral collaboration as one method for generating social change. Given the growth in cross-sectoral partnerships over the last decade since my last book on the topic, Terms for Endearment, I had decided to research the latest thinking and practice and share analysis on how to take partnering to the next level. Some outputs from this included a special issue of the leading journal ‘Business Strategy and the Environment’. Contributors to the special issue look at experiences of partnership from across the Asia-Pacific, and bring new insights into what really drives partnerships and what the future holds. With my co-editors Eva Collins and Juliet Roper, we identified a new ideology that partnership is always useful in creating change, and that struggle and conflict are unhelpful – something we termed ‘partnerism’. 2010 was also the 10th anniversary of the UN Global Compact, a cross-sectoral collaboration between business and the UN, and something I have followed since discussions with Georg Kell in 1998 about the initial idea of it. To coincide with the anniversary, the Journal of Corporate Citizenship published my reflections on how it must now address economic governance issues, which I then developed further into a series of proposals, after attending their Global Leaders Summit in New York.
How should public interest organisations attempt to have more systemic impact through their partnering with private sector? That is the subject of my next book, Evolving Partnerships, which is published by Greenleaf in April 2011. It provides tools for strategic review and planning so that UN agencies, NGOs and others can upgrade their partnering for greater social change. It should be available for ordering next month. I will continue to integrate these insights and approaches into my teaching and training on stakeholder relations and partnerships, including at the University of Geneva and Griffith University.
We are also applying our approaches to our training and strategic advisory for UN agencies. My colleague Ian Doyle led a seminar on private sector engagement for staff of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). As global value chains have become longer and more complex while natural disasters are increasing, so business continuity is becoming more important, and we believe there can be a convergence with reducing community exposure to natural hazards and increasing their resilience. We have also begun advising the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on its strategy for engaging the private sector in innovative ways. In particular we are looked at what can be done to encourage and support voluntary action against forced labour, a form of enslavement for over 12 million people today. Hopefully we will see some outcomes from this work during 2011.
The network Lifeworth Consulting co-founded, CSR Geneva, continued to bring together people from different sectors to discuss the role of business in addressing global challenges, with over 700 participants. Last year my colleague Janna Greve produced its first directory of members. In the coming year we will organise some events to help the international community better understand how to engage business, so sign up now to be informed.
Another collaborative network initiative that I helped to conceive, while at WWF-UK, gained momentum during 2010. The Finance Innovation Lab is promising because it provides a multi-stakeholder space to explore the systemic flaws and fixes of our financial system. In my advisory capacity to both the Lab the community currency charity CommunityForge, I helped CommunityForge engage the Lab, and create a new working group on the need for innovation in community currencies to promote a sustainability transition. The head of CommunityForge, Matthew Slater also happens to also be my web developer, and co-leader our innovation centre in Auroville (India) during the first part of 2010. In the coming year we will be publishing our study on why and how larger corporations can support and start using community currencies. I also hope to advise the Finance Innovation Lab on an effective approach to internationalising, given the global nature of the financial system.
Clearly we still believe in the power of partnerships, but in 2010 we were reminded of the pitfalls of attachment, where people’s sense of esteem becomes attached to the existence of a project, and the manner of its organising, rather than seeing it merely as a tool, and one that needs testing for the job at hand. No matter what tools, topics and resources are deployed, personal character is key to transformative action.
High-end brands play a major role in the world, signalling what constitutes success and respectability, for many, across cultures. Asia continued to be the boom market for luxury brands during 2010, and thus grew their potential to shape awareness of sustainability challenges in a key part of the world. We have worked on CSR in the luxury sector since conceiving a project on this topic for WWF-UK in 2007 that led to the publication of Deeper Luxury, which stimulated a lot of media interest, including a TV documentary. In 2010 we saw the interest in this area grow steadily. Having introduced colleagues at Eco Chic Fashions and the UN with the idea for the UN’s first professional fashion show at its European headquarters, it was great the idea come together at the beginning of the year, profiling many ethical designers from around the world. I then joined the UN’s Biodiversity Platform, which is encouraging companies in the luxury sector to promote biodiversity conservation.
I was pleased to judge the Walpole British luxury association’s CSR awards, which were won by Six Senses Resorts, and give a keynote on sustainable wellness at the Wellness Summit in Singapore, which reflects how sustainability considerations are growing in the spa and wellness industries. A video of that talk is embedded below. The interest in these topics is global, as reflected by the world’s first Centre for Studies on Sustainable Luxury, in Buenos Aires, which I helped to launch. We will be working with them next year to offer courses on sustainable luxury in Latin America, launching the world’s first sustainable luxury awards, and co-developing the online professional Authentic Luxury Network.
I spoke about the future of fashion in Brisbane, at the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise (APCSE), which I helped to found the year before, and they recorded it. As part of the research for a book due out in October, that I have been writing with APCSE on sustainable luxury, I worked with a fashion designer and sustainable materials producer in Southern India, to create a prototype of a form of high-end global sustainable luxury. The organic, hand woven, natural dyed denim sherwani we created appeared in Vogue and Marie Claire, by way of some great photos by award winning photographer Paulo Pellegrin, modelled by yours truly (no, not a career move). I wore the sherwani to the centenary fashion show of men’s luxury fashion house Ermengildo Zegna, and after Anna Zegna introduced me to the work of artist Michaelangelo Pistoletto, then ran a workshop on sustainable fashion for textile companies and designers in at his foundation in the northern Italian town of Biella. The sheer fun of working in Italy means I really hope their efforts to encourage CSR in high-end fashion take off in 2011 and that we are able to help further.
One of our strategy clients in 2010 was a high jewellery brand based in London. That helped us to deepen our understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the jewellery sector, which I discussed on the radio. My colleague Ian Doyle presented his insights from our research on jewellery at the Paris 1.618 sustainable luxury fair, the Atelier for Sustainable Luxury (now the Sustainable Luxury Forum), and at De Beers’ stakeholder consultation. After interviewing dozens of experts about key issues, benchmarking 10 high jewellery brands on their CSR, and identifying leading innovations, we will publish a report responsible jewellery in March.
Also in March we begin teaching the world’s first MBA module on sustainable luxury, at the leading IE Business School, in Madrid. I hope the large luxury brands will be ready to hire the students to transform their companies. However, the luxury industry is not the most innovative and efficient sector that I’ve experienced, and the current commitment from large incumbent brands has been inconsistent. Perhaps the students would do well to establish or join the kind of niche luxury brands that are in the Authentic Luxury Network – the one’s that emerge from the Zeitgeist, rather than repackage the old.
In addition to our consulting business we maintain a CSR jobs and events portal. We’ve designed it in a way that means its full of jobs and events, a useful free one stop shop. But we haven’t designed it in a way where it makes money. So in 2011 we will need to reflect on where next for the portal, after 10 years of providing CSR jobs info to the emerging CSR movement and profession. In 2011 we will open a Geneva office again, based at the new Geneva Hub. We will remain a boutique consulting outfit, only seeking a few clients in the year, working where we can plant seeds that may have a lasting positive impact. We will likely continue to do pro bono work where we get excited about the change potential. We have been doing that by staying small and limiting both overheads and financial expectations. In such a company, what is key is the creative dedication of people who believe their work should be about more than money, status or fun. Therefore I’m grateful to my colleagues who see life that way. Thanks to Ian Doyle for his consistent focus and adaptability, to Janna Greve for her positivity, Hanniah Tariq for her insights, Emma Irwin for her professionalism, Nicky Black (now with De Beers) for her voluntary support, Anne Ellersiek for her phenomenal brain and Matthew Slater for his reliability and moral inspiration.
Each year for the past nine, we have published an annual review of CSR. Not any more – the developments with web2.0 mean that we will provide commentary on an ongoing basis with our RSS feed. In addition, our next book, Healing Capitalism, will review the last few years in CSR and RI.
I believe that this year we will see many more questions raised about economic fairness, about the ethics of the use of power, and we will see increasing cynicism about how business behaves, and a growing spirit of critique. Consequently, there will be more calls for corporate accountability, and a clearer understanding that a responsible business is one that seeks more systematic transparency and accountability from business as a whole. We will also see ISO26000 becoming referenced as the definition of CSR, for good or ill. The implications of Web2.0 for business-society relations will unfold further, with particular implications for fashion brands. We will begin to realise that these new communications tools mean that everything in commerce has an alternative. Even the currencies we use.
Thanks for your interest in our work, and I hope you have success in making waves with your own. You can follow me during 2011 on twitter @jembendell.
Jem Bendell, Director, Lifeworth Consulting.
Here is that keynote on sustainable wellness: