An Elephant in the Room: Jeffrey's Ethical Corp. Conference Keynote Address
Here are Jeffrey's notes for his keynote address at the Ethical Corporation conference in Philadelphia on June 14, 2006:
I find myself in a challenging situation!
Many people have asked me not to be here today because a representative from cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris, a cigarette manufacturer will also be speaking at this conference. To speak at the same conference as Philip Morris, they say, would legitimize the company when it does not deserve to be legitimized.
And yet I’m here. I’m here because by simply choosing sides I believe that no one wins. And thus I will not choose. Because I don’t believe there is ever only one right and one wrong answer. But I do believe that by avoiding dialogue, no matter how much you dislike or distrust the other person, no one wins.
The question of whether or not to participate in this conference is symbolic of a type of conflict we face everyday.
We must create new frameworks, new ways of seeing the world that lead us away from old patterns to new solutions.
Today we have no agreed definition of what a responsible business is so everyone claims to be one. If the CEO’s of every Fortune 500 company were in this room and I asked who was running a responsible business – 500 hands would go up in the air.
I’d like to spend a few minutes exploring why the issues confronting responsible businesses are so complex.
In the Seventh Generation corporate responsibility report we attempt to list all the major ways that we fail to live up to our own mission & values. The list is far too long to include in it’s entirety, but here’s just one example:
(Hold up bottle of Seventh Generation Dish Liquid)
This Seventh Generation dish liquid has a very, very low level of a chemical byproduct called 1, 4 dioxane, about 5,000 parts per billion to be exact. (Shampoo, by comparison, has 50 – 300,000 PPB on average.) Dioxane is considered as a probable human carcinogen.
(Hold up bottle of Odwalla juice, take a sip)
This organic juice is made by a company owned by Coke-Cola. Coke has been accused of murders, kidnapping and the torture of union leaders at their plants in Columbia.
(Hold up Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, take a bite.)
This organic ice-cream will increase the likelihood of a heart attack. Each year 250,000 Americans die of heart attacks.
(Hold up Solgar vitamins)
These vitamins are owned by a company that paid a $2.5 million settlement for illegal business dealings with Colombia's Cali drug cartel leaders.
(Hold up brand name bleach and ammonia products. Mix a few drops together in a glass)
When you mix these two common chemical products together, a gas is created that will kill you. 60,000 poisoning of this kind are reported every year.
(Pour drink of alchohol, take a sip)
Alcohol is responsible for 75,000 deaths a year.
(Hold up a Balance Bar)
This energy bar company (Balance Bar) is owned by Philip Morris, a company whose cigarettes (light one up) cause lung cancer, a disease from which 163,000 people die every year
There is a fine line between a company that sell cigarettes and companies that sell liquor, manufacture chemicals that cause cancer, sell cars that aren’t safe to drive, media outlets that intentionally mislead their readers, governments that send kids into war based on lies, cause torture, or allow genocide.
Of course, there are differences between cigarette companies like Philip Morris and other other companies that externalize their impacts – whether it’s death, pollution or child labor, etc. And we need to be clear about these differences. Cigarettes, for example, have no real purpose, no reason to exist except to foster a deadly chain of addiction that serves only to funnel money from consumers to tobacco companies.
But don’t all of our businesses exist to some extent at some point along the same spectrum from good to evil?
This is a complex question. I agree that having Philip Morris speak at this conference sends a mixed message to the world, but Philip Morris clearly isn't going to pack up and go out of business. They’re here and they’re going to remain here for the forseeable future. And we need to engage with anyone who wants to sit at the table and be part of the discussion to explore new ways to transform their business and its purpose.
I encourage all of you to ask Philip Morris direct and challenging questions about their vision of and commitment to corporate responsibility. And if they are here for the wrong reasons maybe they’ll thing twice about coming again. But if they came to openly and honestly engage about some pretty tough issues who knows what might happen?
By the same token, in the course of this conference I hope you’ll also ask me some very difficult questions. How I respond may give you some insight into how Seventh Generation builds trust in everything we do. And I hope you’ll do the same in your other conversations whether they are with Coors or with the companies you have come to love like Organic Valley or Cliff Bar
We have no agreed definition of what a responsible business is, and we need one so that companies like Philip Morris as well as the rest of us have a clear and unambiguous idea of what we are committing ourselves to when we describe ourselves in this way.
So that if Phillip Morris wants to sit at the table, the rules of that table are known, understood, and leave no wiggle room for saying, "Well, yes our products kill people, but we've got a great maternity leave policy and we compost our kitchen scraps at all our facilities, etc."
This kind of attending-to-the-small-things-while-ignoring-the-irresponsible-elephant-in-the-room approach, is a strategy that too many companies use to take advantage of the PR possibilities in corporate responsibility while continuing business as usual. And it must be defined out of existence.
I would actually go one step beyond the need for an agreed-upon definition and say that I also believe we need to change the aspirations that responsible business strive to achieve.
We need to move our businesses from a paradigm of simply doing less damage to one in which we take on the responsibility to play a regenerative role in the world.
What does that mean?
The world is quite frankly way to screwed up and in too much danger for business to merely aspire to just:
- reduce CO2 emissions
- have fewer sweatshops
- put more recycled content in products
- pay less obscene wages paid to CEO’s
- offer better health care benefits
We need to do more. Much more. So what principles should drive the purpose and behavior of a responsible corporation?
High on my list is:
A commitment to real sustainability, that is sustainability that recognizes that the lack of equity and justice that characterizes the world today is totally incompatible with the idea of sustainability
We must promote equity & justice and that must start in our own businesses, with both compensation and ownership. I earn less than 10 times what the average employee at Seventh Generation makes. What about your CEO?
We must maintain absolute transparency. How can anyone really decide if they want to do business with us if they can’t evaluate what is good but also what is both bad and ugly about our companies?
We must have a vision of the world we are committed to create by 2050. If we as businesses do not have such a vision, a vision that we are committed to creating then the world is in for a pretty tough time
At Seventh Generation we talk about these objectives as Global Imperatives
They define the work we are committed to do over the next 50 to 100 years
We are committed to:
Being educators of a conscious and enlightened citizenry
Enabling our customers to make decisions and take actions that create equity and justice via the market place
Producing a world that is rich in value as opposed to a world that is rich in artifacts
Creating a world that supports the health and wellbeing for all
Helping to create Governance and social systems that provide for the future security of all people
Ensuring that globally, natural resources are used and renewed at a rate that is always below their rate depletion.
That’s a tall order. But I hope it’s one you’ll all be up for discussing how to fill.