Bankers, behaving badly, backing coal

india-coal-power-007The  big Wall Street banks say all the right thing about sustainability and corporate responsibility but investment bankers are, above all, driven by the deal. Turning away business is just not part of their skill set, or mind set.

That’s the best explanation that I can come up with for the fact that Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, along with three India-based banks, are managing a share offering for Coal India, a company with an environmental and human rights record that is, at best, spotty.

Their decision to do so is the topic of my story today at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re an investor seeking to profit from the coal industry and you’re indifferent to the issues of climate change, forest destruction and human rights, Bank of AmericaGoldman SachsCredit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have a deal for you.

The four US and European banks, along with Indian investment banksSBI Capital MarketsJM Financial and Kotak Mahindra Capital Co., are managing a share offering in Coal India, one of the world’s biggest coal-mining companies.

They’re doing so despite Coal India’s dismal environmental record, despite the climate impacts of burning coal, despite allegations that the state-owned firm has run roughshod over tribal communities and despite objections by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as by Indian environmentalists.

They’re also doing so despite their own rhetoric about sustainability and corporate responsibility.

I hope you take the time to read the story. It’s tough, I think, but it’s a reflection of the difficulty that the corporate-responsibility and environmental movements have had gaining traction on Wall Street. Most of the big financial institutions have made “green” commitments, and that’s great, but if they continue to finance fossil fuels on a grand scale, they could wind up doing more harm than good.

None of the banks would talk to me on the record for the story, and I imagine that if they did, they would say, correctly, that burning fossil fuels is perfectly legal in India, and everywhere else, as is dumping emissions into the atmosphere at no cost. That’s a political problem, and not a Wall Street problem, they could argue. True enough. But if the banks believe what they say about climate change and the environment, they should then make their voices heard more forcefully in the climate debate in Washington and elsewhere.

Until they do, their rhetoric about sustainability will remain hollow.

Amazon’s a great company. But good? Nope.

amazon-logoLike millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon’s  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that “if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company.”

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO– is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn’t publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn’t respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80% of big companies do.) It’s ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon’s  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story. [click to continue...]

The point after: Why I’m done with football

If we, as a society, have chosen to keep sugary sodas out of schools, why not football?

That was one of the reactions to yesterday’s blogpost, Why I’m done with football. In the post, I explained why, as a lifelong football fan (and co-author of a book about ABC’s Monday Night Football), I can no longer watch the game. Being a fan of football is being a fan of violence, and self-destruction.

The timing of the post, sadly, was good. It ran on the day when Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ star rookie quarterback, suffered a mild concussion. “Knocked out, left cold” was the headline atop The Washington Post sports page this morning.

After the blogpost ran, my friend Stuart Kerkhof asked by email:

You made it clear that your decision is personal in that you are simply choosing not to support/watch the sport. Does this mean you are against any government involvement? Does it matter whether it is professional versus amateur? If you think schools shouldn’t sell sugary sodas, certainly they shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor and glorify football?

That’s a tough one. Most people, I think, would be uncomfortable if middle schools and high schools had boxing teams. Is football really all that different?

I had a touching email from a reader named Rob Juneau who stumbled across the blog and suffered his own brain injury, although not from football: [click to continue...]

Why I’m done with football

No one can say that the NFL doesn’t take its corporate responsibility seriously.

NFL teams are putting solar panels on their stadiums.

The NFL supports the fight against breast cancer.

The league’s Play 60 campaign encourages kids to get active.

But the first obligation of a responsible business is to keep its workers safe.

The NFL hasn’t done that. The NFL won’t do that. The NFL can’t do that.

So I’m done with football.* I can’t and won’t watch it anymore.

Partly, this is personal. This summer, I’ve spent lots of time with baseball–my Washington Nationals have had an amazing year–and I need a break from sports. The choice between baseball and football is easy for me. As the late George Carlin said, famously (and you can read the whole routine here):

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.

…In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

But it’s more than that. Even the casual football fan now knows that he or she is watching a very dangerous game, and not just because of the bone-jangling hits that bring cheering fans to their feet. Evidence is accumulating that extended careers in football, and the repeated blows to the head that they entail, make people sick. Players who sustain concussions are susceptible to long-term brain damage, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. Their suffering has evidently  led several ex-players to commit suicides.

[To be sure, more study is needed--for a skeptical view of the football-brain trauma connection, see this, as well as a detailed but informal analysis by Grantland found that football players live longer than baseball players. But I've seen enough to persuade me that football is unavoidably violent and dangerous.]

I wrote about the NFL and brain injury in 2007 and again in 2009 [See The NFL's tobacco moment]. But I remained a fan. I’m not sure why. I think it’s partly because of the way we experience football on TV. The players are hidden under their helmets. They move around on screen like performers in a video game, not flesh-and-blood human beings who are inflicting long-term damage on one another. We don’t think of them as sons and fathers, with wives, children and parents.

But anyone who pays  even casual attention now knows about the pain and suffering that often come after the NFL. Consider: [click to continue...]

My Steve Jobs problem

In business, and in life, we’d like to believe that good behavior will be rewarded. Most books on management talk about treating people with respect, or being firm but not harsh, or being generous about sharing credit. What goes around comes around, right? Right.

So what are we to make of Steve Jobs?

Walter Isaacson

I’ve just read Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of the Apple founder and CEO. It’s a terrific book, but an unnerving one–because Jobs was successful despite some sneaky dealings, despite his utter lack of interest in corporate social responsibility, at least as it is conventionally defined, and despite treating people in ways that violate most everything that’s taught at business schools, or, for that matter, in kindergarten.

He could be cold, unpleasant, petulant, arrogant, abusive and self-absorbed. What’s more, this dark side of Jobs seems to be  intertwined with his brilliant and obsessive devotion to making great products at Apple. A “demented genius,” one reviewer called him. Having said that, Jobs could also be sweet, vulnerable, boyish, charming and endearing–when he chose to be.

It’s hard to overstate what Jobs accomplished in his 56 years. No, he didn’t cure cancer or alleviate global poverty but he remade a half dozen industries, all with panache: personal computers, music, animated movies (with Pixar), phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. My life is richer, more fun and more productive because of Jobs. I’m writing this on a MacBook, and I own an iPhone4s, an iPad, and a bunch of iPods. I’ve run hundreds of miles with my Nano, loaded with podcasts or music from iTunes, and  I’ve spent, conservatively, close to $10,000 on Apple products for myself, my wife and daughters. [click to continue...]

Let’s do away with CSR

Maybe it’s time t0 do away with corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Not merely the words and the idea but the infrastructure: CSR departments, CSR reports, CSR conferences and CSR executives.

And, as long as we’re at it, let’s think about ditching the triple bottom line, the pursuit of shared value, corporate citizenship and especially, yuk, the idea that stakeholders deserve a say in how to run a business.

All of these are, at best, distractions and, at worst, ways of thinking about business that create a separation between a company’s core business and its impact on the world. Both ought to be life-enhancing. No more and no less.

I’ve been thinking about CSR and how to talk about it for years.  I wrote my first article on corporate responsibility for FORTUNE in 2003. It ran under an odd headline — Tree Huggers, Soy Lovers and Profits — because my editors knew that  words like corporate social responsibility turn off readers. I grappled with the meaning and terminology of CSR again in my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, which explored connections between religion, faith, values, spirituality and business. The language of faith and values, I subsequently decided, wasn’t the best one to use when speaking to corporate executives about business and its impact. I’m now inclined to talk about sustainability. For all its vagueness, corporate sustainability is an idea that is both practical–no one wants to kill their company–and radical, because no company  is truly sustainable, at least as defined by the Bruntland Commission as promoting development in a way that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

But the here goes beyond language. I was reminded of that when reading an excellent new book by Carol Sanford called The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (Jossey-Bass, 2011). No, I don’t love the title or even her terminology. (One chapter is  called, yikes, “Stakeholders as Systemic Collaborators.”) But Carol’s arguments and insights (and the title wasn’t her idea) are spot on. Carol argues that the most successful and profitable businesses, over time, will not be those that “practice CSR” but instead those that rethink their purpose, reorganize themselves to draw upon the creativity and passion of all, and integrate responsible behavior into the way they do everything they do.

As Carol writes:

Responsibility isn’t a set of metrics to be tracked or behaviors to be modified. It is central to both the purpose and prosperity of a business and must be pervasive in its practices.

This may sound obvious but it leads her (and her readers) to new ways of thinking about business. Businesses, she says, should strive not just to minimize the harm they do, but to do good, to become restorative, to “improve and evolve healthy systems.” She explains: [click to continue...]

CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability

“People just want a cell phone,” Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, told me. “They don’t care how green it is.”

“But we think they will over time.”

Is that sufficient reason to try to sell “green” phones, aggressively promote recycling and buy renewable energy?

“People want to do business with good companies,” Hesse says. “I want us to be thought of as a very good company.”

I met with Hesse last week in Washington to talk about Sprint’s environmental practices. They’re impressive.

You probably recognize Hesse. The 56-year-old chief executive has been starring in Sprint commercials for the past couple of years, touting the company’s “Simply Everything” plan which offers unlimited calling, text and email for one price. Sprint’s subscriber numbers have perked up a bit this year, but the company remains the No. 3 player in the cell phone industry (far behind Verizon and AT&T), with about 48 million subscribers and $32.3 billion in revenues. Its stock price is down by nearly 40 percent in the past two years, trailing rivals and the S&P500.

So Hesse, who has been CEO since the end of 2007, could be forgiven if he had shoved environmental concerns off the agenda.

To his credit, he hasn’t.

Sprint offers not one, but three environmentally-friendly phones–the Samsung Restore, which is partly made from post-consumer recycled plastics, the Samsung Reclaim, whose casing is made in part from bioplastics sourced from corn and the LG Remarq, which also uses post-consumer recyled plastic. Their chargers meet the EPA’s Energy Star standards and they all contain “low levels” of potentially hazardous chemicals (PVCs, BFRs, Phthaltes and Beryllim.).

Because of its aggressive promotion of recycling, Sprint’s collection rate for recycling and reuse of phones has climbed from 22% in 2007 to 34% in 2008 to 42% in 2009–about twice the industry average, according to Hesse. Like some electronics companies, Sprint now offers free recycling, not just to its own customers, but to anyone who has wireless phones, batteries, accessories and data cards that they no longer use, as part of a program called Sprint Project Connect. Proceeds, if any, go to charity. Better yet, a program called Sprint Buyback pays Sprint customers for their old devices, which are then either recycled or, more often, refurbished and reused. The company’s long term goal (2017) is to collect nine phones for every 10 that it sells. [click to continue...]

For business, is health the new “green”?

A decade ago, few people would have thought that major banks, retailers or Internet companies would need environmental strategies. Yet today, they do–Bank of America has promised to invest $20 billion on sustainability initiatives over 10 years,  Wal-Mart’s aggressive environmental efforts are well known and eBay, while selling second-hand stuff, touts the idea of sustainable consumption.

This is largely because expectations of business are always rising. To pick another example: When I was a kid, we didn’t think about how or where or under what conditions our sneakers or T-shirts were made. Now brands that sell footwear or apparel maintain expensive and extensive efforts to monitor their supply chains, to avoid possible scandal around child labor or unsafe factories. Just as Nike or Gap.

So what’s the next big issue that companies need to worry about?

Edelman-Health-Barometer2The Edelman public relations firm says it’s health. Last month, after surveying 15,000 people in 11 countries, Edelman released what it calls its Health Engagement Barometer. The firm says health is emerging as a major corporate responsibility issue, not just for the obvious suspects–drug companies, insurance companies, the fast-food industry–but for companies of all kinds.

Of those surveyed, 69% said that

business should be as engaged in maintaining and improving personal and public health as it is in maintaining and improving the environment.

Respondents to the survey said they would be more willing to trust, do business with and even invest in companies that are engaged in health issues–by, for example, making available products that promote health, communicating the health risks of their products, helping their workers become healthier, helping address obesity or contributing to global health.

“Health is joining environment as a major sustainability issue and therefore a major issue for businesses that want to prosper in the future,” says Nancy Turett, global president for health at Edelman. [click to continue...]