On January 31, the New York Stock Exchange will host “Focal Point USA,” the first official event of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) on U.S. soil. NACD will no doubt cover this event, since we champion the inclusion of nonfinancial metrics in performance measurement—see our recent Blue Ribbon Commission report on Performance Metrics.
But back to GRI: More than 1,300 companies worldwide use GRI standards for corporate reporting on environmental, social and economic performance (we’ll call these “social” issues for short). Most of the companies are located outside the U.S., however, hence the “Focal Point USA” campaign. The New York kickoff will be the first point in a tri-city tour. On February 3, The World Bank will host a breakfast meeting to gather the local sustainability community and discuss latest trends in social disclosure and sustainability reporting. On February 4, Ceres, the longtime sustainability initiative that launched GRI, will host a roundtable event in Boston for sustainability reporters. Will there be a dramatic surge in the number of companies adopting GRI and embracing social issues? The answer is yes—but only if corporate social responsibility can correct its image. Let me explain…
When yours truly was at Chesterbrook Elementary School in Falls Church, VA (later renamed as McLean), having gained a reputation as a writer for my stories on heroic figures such as “Slowpoke the Snail” (painstakingly handwritten on many pages of regulation line paper and usually circulated for only a few days before being ripped up by the school’s top bully) my peers elected me to become the editor of the school newspaper, produced with pungent purple ink on a mimeograph machine. Well, being a writer was one thing and being an editor was another. The deadline for the newspaper was fast approaching, and I had gathered no copy—not even from the boy who had taken the trouble to dance with me at Cotillion before revealing his true motives (“Will you make me a sports editor?” he asked, dashing my first hopes of unconditional love). So I had a bright idea. An artistically inclined pal of mine could draw a picture with as much incompetence as she could muster, and title it, What is wrong with this picture? The arrival of this first official submission to the school paper broke the logjam. Soon other articles appeared and I had enough copy to make a newspaper.
But when it comes to corporate social responsibility, something really IS wrong with the picture and I think I know what it is. But like the tale of “Slowpoke,” it will take me a while to tell, and I recount it in an environment—our current business world—that tends to overpower nuance.
Here is the two-part dilemma.
1. By their very existence, corporations are based in fundamentally moral principles such as meeting needs, setting viable prices, paying wages and so forth. There are of course, outlier exceptions like monopoly, fraud and other ills but these are already combated by government with taxpayer dollars. We need to shout that business really does do good day in and day out.
2. At the same time, however, there is overwhelming proof that companies making additional investments in social issues do better financially than peer companies that ignore such issues. Don’t just take my word for it. Read the extensive writing of Steven Jordan of the Business Civic Leadership Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or of Stephen Young, Executive Director of the Caux Roundtable. Or consider the fact that a leading social/governance issues expert at the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, Mike Lubrano, cofounded the Cartica Capital and left a secure government job to invest his career by investing in companies that “get it right.” The fund is doing quite well.
Are these additional investments optional, like giving to a favorite charity, or necessary like paying insurance premiums? In my view, they are necessary, but not because corporations have or should have a “responsibility” to contribute to society. Any red-blooded company would rebel at such a guilt trip. It’s because corporations are woven into the social fabric, and if they harm that fabric, they themselves are harmed. If they help that fabric, they themselves are helped. So the problem is the picture. We need not envision a magnanimous corporation giving to society. But rather society giving to a corporation…employees give their time, customers give their treasure, and the public gives its trust. The real question is, will corporations receive or reject this wealth that is available to them in return for a modest and necessary premium?
In conclusion, what is wrong with the current picture of corporate social responsibility? The problem is that corporate responsibility is a confusing misnomer. Social investments are not merely a “responsibility.” They are economic necessities. As for me, yes, there was something wrong with my picture when, out of desperation, I had to commission that illustration. I was promoted beyond my level of competency. I needed to stick to writing. The same goes for corporations. They are not there to do good. They are there to do business—making good products and services, sold in free markets, and voluntarily investing in the social infrastructure that makes those markets possible.
Now that picture is worth a thousand words—and untold returns on investment.
Well said, Alex. Indeed, this is what must happen if we are to avoid a wasteful and disastrous confrontation between business and the public good. To be precise, first, accounting regulations have to incorporate external costs into a generally accepted practice; and two, trustees must act as majority shareholders and take a holistic view of their costs and impact on society.
This is exactly what you and I worked on all last year for our book: the principle that a well-governed company is worth more than one that is not. This is a rather blatant plug but I hope your readers will pick up the book (Corporate Valuation for Portfolio Investment) and read a fuller explanation of just what you’re saying here. The table of contents and a brief excerpt are over at my site if anyone wants a quick look (www.ragm.com/BlogPosts/CorpValSample.pdf).