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Saving the Sinners
February 13, 2011
American singer/songwriter Paul Simon sang “I want a shot at redemption” on his ode to middle age, ‘You Can Call Me Al.’ Is that too much to ask or are some companies/industries inherently ‘irresponsible’?
Let’s face it; there are some companies and industries that we love to hate. And critics of the sustainability and social responsible investing in particular are quick to point out the high rates of returns for the so-called ‘sin’ companies; those that produce products like cigarettes (a favorite example) and continue to thrive despite overwhelming evidence that their products are unhealthy for people and the planet.
And then there is the vast grey area. Companies that produce bottled water are criticized for the production and packaging of life-sustaining commodity that, people argue, needlessly wastes resources. Certainly those in the developed world would do well to drink from their tap using reusable containers but we cannot forget that 1.1 billion people or 18 per cent of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water according to the United Nations. That’s almost one out of every five people. And those bottled water companies that we love to hate may be the best way to provide these people with life-giving water free from bacteria, parasites and animal (including human) waste.
Fast food companies are criticized for everything from the lack of nutritional value of their products to their packaging, their marketing to young people and their predominance in lower-income neighborhoods. While certainly their products can be linked to obesity, it is important to remember that the World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is under-fed and one-third is starving. In Haiti, where cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular staple, the same 39 cent McDonalds hamburger we love to hate would be a blessing.
The same gun manufacturer that produces weapons that take away lives in crime-infested neighborhoods is also allowing hunters to provide sustenance for their families – often more humanely than more primitive hunting methods that offer cause the animals pain and suffering or even leave them injured and susceptible to disease. While we indulge ourselves in guilt for being on the top of the food chain, an estimated four million people will starve to death this year alone.
These examples are meant to be extreme but they lead to an important question that we must answer. Should we continue to shun companies that engage in (some) activities that we don’t like even as they make real progress such as improving their packaging and distribution? Or instead should we offer the olive branch of positive reinforcement even as we hope that these are merely preliminary efforts toward a more enlightened approach to providing value?
The PepsiCo Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Soft Drink manufacturer has pledged to bring more than one million people safe drinking water by 2010. While one might argue that this while laudable is not enough to grant them an indulgence for the actions of the company as a whole, is it fundamentally much different than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts (which are often praised) to fight diseases? Recall that that foundation owes its existence to the sales of computers that are made of petroleum-based plastics and precious metals that are often mined, created and disposed of in ways that are detrimental to health and the environment. Recently the company announced that it plans to go fossil fuel free by 2023 for all of its UK operations. Nothing can or should detract from that huge commitment which has the potential for huge impact as well as leading other companies to engage in their own similar efforts.
Are we blaming the sin but not the sinners?
Are we blaming companies for producing products that we find unseemly without accepting that market forces are rewarding their behavior? We recycle only a quarter of the millions of bottles we purchase despite the availability and ease of doing so. Sales of ‘unhealthy’ choices are unaffected when we insist that food companies share the nutritional content of their products. Warning labels on cigarettes explicitly detail the dangers and yet do not prevent countless of intelligent human beings – a disproportionate number of whom can ill afford the expense of the cigarettes, much less the medical care that often comes from smoking - from taking up the habit each year. Are we holding the companies unfairly accountable for providing goods and services that the market demands?
Personally I believe, strongly, that we must reward and recognize achievements as we move toward a sustainable global economy; remembering that improvements along the path are worthy of recognition because it is the best way to encourage the changes we wish to see. For example, recently I read about a proposed acquisition of Massey Energy Co. by Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. Alpha is the only US coal supplier to integrate CSR into management by having a Chief Sustainability Officer. Contrast that to the fact that Massey was the company that operated an oft-cited mine in West Virginia where 29 miners lost their lives last spring. Knowing the superior track record of Alpha (you can check their commitment and infrastructure here) this buyout holds the potential for important improvements in worker safety. While some might fret at the increased size of a coal company, this takeover offers credible hope for improvements in responsibility associated with existing capacity.
It is important that sustainability advocates recognize that this is very good news for the miners – and their families and friends - who risk their lives every day to obtain the coal that produces the electricity and steel that are critical for our nation's vitality (whether or not we like where they come from.)
Practical idealism. It is the only way to encourage those on the road to redemption.