Saturday, March 27, 2010

Video Blog: Leeora Black on the State of CSR in Australia

Dr Leeora Black is the Founder and Managing Director of the Australian Centre for CSR (ACCSR). In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, she shares what their recent annual CSR national survey has revealed, as well as where Australia is demonstrating best practice (e.g. Alcoa in community engagement). The interview took place in Melbourne on 10 March 2010.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Video Blog: Suzanne Young on CSR and Corporate Governance

Suzanne Young is an Associate Professor at La Trobe University's Graduate School of Management. In this interview, conducted by Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, she talks about the links between CSR and corporate governance, and what we can learn from Australia's experience.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Video Blog: Puvan Selvanathan on Sustainable Palm Oil

Puvan Selvanathan is Chief Sustainability Officer for Sime Darby, a Malaysian company that supplies 8-10% of the world's palm oil. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, which was conducted in Kuala Lumpur shortly after the release of Greenpeace's report condemning Nestle's practices on palm oil, Mr Selvanathan reflects on the campaign and its implications for the industry.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The State of CSR in Singapore: An Unnecessary Extra?

By Wayne Visser

Having just completed my (admittedly short) visit to Singapore as part of my CSR Quest tour, I have mixed impressions. Evidence of ‘explicit’ CSR (such as CSR reports, policies, managers, etc.) is extremely limited and certainly lags other developed nations and some developing countries, including in Asia. However, I did find myself asking the question: If a government is extremely effective – as arguably it is in Singapore – does that limit the need for CSR, or at the very least its scope?

Over the past 50 years or so, the Singapore government has succeeded admirably in growing the economy, creating job opportunities, ensuring good working conditions (for nationals) and raising the standard of living, all in a tiny city-state without any natural resources. Even on environmental issues, it has cleaned up the rivers, lowered air pollution, greened the city and virtually eliminated its dependence on Malaysia for water. Could it be that CSR in Singapore is an unnecessary extra, practiced only to placate Western markets and investors?

On reflection, I think this would be a premature and misplaced conclusion. First, there seem to be some issues where, although progress has been made, there are still serious concerns. For example, the rights and conditions of migrant contract workers on which the economy is dependent; transparency and integration of CSR issues into corporate governance and financial markets; and reducing the carbon intensity of the economy, which includes one of the biggest container ports and gas refineries in the world, not to mention a prolific construction industry.

I must confess, I was surprised that despite widespread perceptions (including my own) of the government being ‘strong’, there seems to be a reluctance to take a lead on many social and environmental issues. For example, after meeting with the CEO of the National Environment Agency, I had the impression that, while the government is doing some good things (e.g. on encouraging recycling and energy efficiency), they are extremely hesitant to introduce any bold regulations or controls that might be seen to be a cost or to harm the competitiveness or security of Singapore’s trade and industry.

The water issue is illustrative. It was only after a political crisis with Malaysia that Singapore instituted the range of measures, including leading edge filtration and desalination technologies, that now make it not only virtually water self-sufficient, but also a leading exporter of water technologies. Along a similar theme, I did hear talk of Singapore becoming a green IT or clean-tech hub for Asia, but I think the government’s softly-softly approach will leave them far in the wake of countries like Korea, Japan and, in the future, China.

Even so, there is a lesson to be learned from Singapore. As a geographically small city-state, with a relatively high population density, the government quickly faced up to the fact that there is no ‘away’. It had to deal with its own externalities, rather than export them. Innovation was born of necessity. Poverty and pollution could not be tucked away in remote rural regions or ignored as the inevitable lot of a fringe slum society. Either the whole city prospered, or it didn’t. There was nowhere to hide poor people or poor governance.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the Asian tigers jockeyed for position in the region and the world, Singapore made strategic investments in two areas – its people (creating a highly skilled labour force) and its infrastructure (making it one of the most friendly trade and investment destinations in the world). Singapore knew that if it didn’t get these two things right, it would have no competitive advantage – it would lose its upwardly mobile workforce to Japan, Korea or the West and global economic activity would divert to other parts of Asia.

So we can learn from the ‘spaceship earth’ (city-state) thinking of Singapore. But, for me, the jury is still out on CSR per se. Unless the government and companies can shake off the ‘competitiveness at all costs’ mentality, it may always be a CSR laggard, moving with the late majority; certainly not the worst, but far from the best. Somehow, Singapore needs to answer for itself the ‘why’ question. Why is CSR relevant, or important, in Singapore? I am betting this will inevitably lead straight to another question: How can CSR make Singapore more competitive?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Video Blog: John Prince on Managing the Social Impacts of Business

John Prince is the Director of Social Compass, a consultancy that helps companies to manage their social impacts. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, he talks about the challenges and lessons he has learned in dealing with stakeholders at a grassroots level. The interview was conducted on 5 March 2010 in Melbourne.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Neil Birtchnell on Community Engagement and Indigenous People

Neil Birtchnell is the General Manager: Business Community Investment for Transfield Services, a global provider of operations, maintenance, and asset and project management services, headquartered and listed in Australia. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, he talks about their experience in community engagement and empowering indigenous people. The interview was conducted on 5 March 2010 in Melbourne.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Video Blog: Joris Oldenziel on the OECD Guidelines for MNEs

Joris Oldenziel is Senior Researcher for SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations in Amsterdam). In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, CEO of CSR International, he reflects on the effectiveness of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The interview was conducted at the ACCSR conference in Melbourne on 19 February 2010.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Video Blog: Richard Boele on Shell in Nigeria

Richard Boele is Managing Director of Banarra Sustainability Assurance and Advice. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, CEO of CSR International, he reflects on how his interactions with executed Nigerian human rights activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, shaped his perception of CSR in general and Shell in Nigeria in particular. He also draws interesting parallels with the blockbuster movie, Avatar. The interview was conducted at the ACCSR conference in Melbourne on 19 February 2010.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Video Blog: Shanaka Fernando on Social Enterprise and the Purpose of Money

Shanaka Fernando is Founder of the Melbourne social enterprise Lentil As Anything, a chain of restaurants founded on the principle of generosity, where clientèle pay what they can afford or wish to pay, by making a contribution in a "magic box" after their meal. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, Director of CSR International, he talks about his personal journey that led him to question the purpose of money and the potential of social enterprises to make a positive difference. The interview took place on 5 March in the Abbotsford Convent grounds in Melbourne.

Lentil As Anything: An Experiment in Generosity

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Shanaka Fernando*, founder of the Melbourne based restaurant chain, Lentil As Anything. Shanaka is one of those rare pioneers who are prepared to live by their convictions, flaunt social convention and challenge the status quo.

PM_Shanaka_wideweb__470x295,0After a failed stint as a Buddhist monk in his home country of Sri Lanka (he fell in love with a nun, had a torrid affair and got kicked out), he came to Australia and dabbled in law studies. It wasn't fulfilling, so he gave it up to travel on a shoestring around the third world for six years, learning about culture and community along the way. When he returned to Australia, Shanaka started a business importing saris made from recycled fabrics, which made him enough money to start his current social experiment - Lentil As Anything.

I call it a social experiment, because the business goes beyond simply being a social enterprise. Like other social businesses, Lentil As Anything embraces the entrepreneurial spirit while it "seeks to have a significant, positive influence on the development of the community". But there is something more unique, more challenging, more sublime and more subversive - because it gets to the heart of human nature and the essence of Western capitalism. I am talking about generosity and money.

lentilThrough Lentil As Anything, Shanaka is trying to foster a culture of generosity. What would happen, he wondered, if there were no prices? What if people only paid what they could afford, or what they thought the food was worth, or what they were inspired to pay? Is there enough generosity left in Western society to run a viable business on the principle of giving and sharing, rather than profit maximisation? Would the 'free rider' problem kick in, with people taking advantage of the 'free' food?

According to Shanaka, all kinds of interesting things happen when people are faced with 'the magic box' - the treasure chest that people can place their donations in as they leave. A few (very, very few) take advantage. Some, who genuinely can't afford to pay, offer to chop vegetables or do dishes. Others make their own assessment of what is a fair price to pay. Some are quietly generous, while others make a theatrical gesture of placing their donation in the magic box.

melbourne 014 (2)But it goes beyond the money. Other unexpected things happen too. As you look around, you notice that this is not a 'people like me' experience, where you are surrounded by those from your own socio-economic or ethno-cultural strata. Lentil has succeeded in mixed it up, cutting across traditional divides. And because of the philosophy of the place, you may find a wealthy businessman striking up a conversation with a subsistence artist.

When you create these kind of creative connections, it is a potent recipe for innovation, for rediscovering what it means to be human. Shanaka insists that Lentil is first and foremost about good food (interestingly, vegetarian food, because that is the most inclusive, making concerns about halal or kosher or meat-based preparation irrelevant). But it is clearly more than that. It is an invitation to restore our faith in the essential goodness of humanity and the wholesome nature of community.

What, you may ask, has all this to do with CSR? Well, I believe it is entrepreneurs like Shanaka that are at the forefront of the CSR 2.0 wave. If we subject Lentil to the 5 tests of CSR 2.0, it scores well: 1) Is Lentil creative? (yes), 2) is it scalable (not sure), 3) is it responsive (extremely), 4) is it glocal (yes, it thinks globally but acts locally), and 5) is it circular (mostly, yes, local production and recycling are part of the philosophy and practice).

Even on scalability, Lentil gave me pause to think about what I mean by that. If we accept the 'Long Tail' approach to scalability (popularised by Chris Anderson), Lentil doesn't have to go from 4 to 40,000 restaurants to be scalable. It could be that 10,000 independent restaurants - inspired by a similar philosophy - pop up all around the world and turn the generosity experiment into a global movement.

As the world recovers from the Age of Greed that culminated in the global financial crisis, it is refreshing to be reminded of the rightful place of money in society. Money is always a means to an end; never the end in itself. Melbourne - and indeed the world - would be a poorer place if brave experiments like Lentil As Anything were allowed to fail**. Let us make sure that, in the battle of generosity versus money, generosity wins hands down.

* You can listen to Shanaka tell his own story in this brief video interview that I conducted with him.

** You can find details on how to make a donation to Lentil As Anything are on their website.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Video Blog: A Birthday Message from the CEO as CSR International turns ONE

On 4 March 2010 marks the first birthday of CSR International. In this short video, Founder and Director Dr Wayne Visser reflects on how far the organisation has come and what to expect in the years ahead.

Happy birthday! CSR International turns ONE year old

By Wayne Visser

csri_kb_death3One year ago, on 4 March 2009, about 100 people gathered at The Hub in Kings Cross, London, to celebrate the official launch of CSR International. Memorably, the event included a funeral service for ‘old CSR’ (corporate social responsibility, or CSR 1.0) and a naming and blessing ceremony for the newborn CSR (corporate sustainability and responsibility, or CSR 2.0).

The ensuing 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride of growth, change, making friends, experimentation and shared learning, with a good deal of trial and error. Along the way, we have created a community of over a thousand CSR enthusiasts, students and professionals from 91 countries. We have conducted 22 learning events in the UK, Germany, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Kenya and Australia, as well as online. We have also shared nearly a thousand knowledge-based posts online.

Over the past year, the website has received 47,690 visits by 34,501 visitors, with 111,349 page views. The offsite CSR International blog has received 29,252 visitors and was selected as a Top 100 Blog by The Daily Reviewer. CSR International has also built a presence across various social media platforms, including Twitter (976 followers), Facebook (850 members), Yahoo (710 members), Ning (128 members) and LinkedIn (95 members).

Despite this strong online presence, there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, and this has been the most rewarding part of the past year. Through CSR International’s various learning programmes, I have had the chance to meet CSR friends from around the globe. Happily, this circle of friends will continue to widen through the CSR Quest world tour that I embarked on in January 2010. As to why I am doing the Quest, see the interview by my friends and leading CSR thinkers, Crane & Matten.

The year has not been without its challenges. In its first financial year (ending September 2009), CSR International made an operating loss. The business model of individual membership subscription has proved unviable, and without any sponsors, angel investors or corporate members, the financial security of CSR International remains precarious.

Nevertheless, a lot has been achieved, and there is much to look forward to. In the next 12 months, The World Guide to CSR will be launched, the CSR Quest Tour will be completed and CSR International will have moved more strongly into online learning and supporting CSR professionalization. CSR International’s claim to be “The incubator for CSR 2.0” will also be given a boost when my new book, The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 is published by Wiley.

csri_kb_crowd_smallIt has been an invigorating (and at times exhausting) journey, but looking at how far we have come in just one year, I know it has been worth the effort. Much of our success is due to the generous and mostly voluntary support by a team of largely invisible researchers and interns, to whom I am deeply grateful. And to my fellow CSR enthusiasts and friends, I trust you will join us over the next year and beyond, as our profession continues to make a positive difference in the world.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Video Blog: Nathan Fabian on Climate Change and the Investment Industry

Nathan Fabian is CEO of the Investor Group on Climate Change Australia/New Zealand. In this interview with Dr Wayne Visser, CEO of CSR International, he discusses the role of the financial investment sector in advancing action on climate change. The interview took place at the ACCSR conference in Melbourne on 19 February 2010.