Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets an account of an organization battling a large company over issues of sustainability and corporate responsibility. I used to work in the field of corporate social responsibility, and it was an exciting time of my life that I'll reminisce upon in this post. To see where this Greenwich, New Jersey (can you believe that there are three of them?!) is located relative to everything else, responsibly consult the map.
"'We've had time to organize and make changes because the demand for power in the seventies didn't increase as much as A.C.E. predicted it would. Technical problems at the Salem nuclear plant gave us time too. Now, if you ask me, both regulations and time are on our side - on the side of history. It's easier to keep a developer under a quiet but continuous pressure to act with corporate responsibility. But for us, it was an awakening at the brink.'
"'The problem of what we're doing lies in deciding what's the benefit of history and what's the burden. We're not trying to hold back the future, but we do believe what has happened in Greenwich is at least as important as what could happen here. The future should grow from the past, not obliterate it.'"
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 11
Greenwich, New Jersey
In 1995 I moved to San Antonio, Texas. In January 1996, I started a job as the director of an organization called the Texas Coalition for Responsible Investment (Texas CRI). The organization still exists as the Socially Responsible Investment Coalition (SRIC).
I had never invested in my life. I knew little about Wall Street. But, here I was as the head of an organization that had "investment" in the title.
I soon learned that I would have little to do with actual investing. Texas CRI was a coalition of about 20 religious organizations and institutions, mostly Catholic, that made investments in the stock market and yet wanted their investments to reflect their values in social justice and environmental responsibility. A typical example of such an institution is the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, an order of Catholic nuns based in San Antonio that invested pension money to maintain their elderly and retired members. Like the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, other members of the group such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio and the rest did not want to invest in companies that promoted tobacco, or profited from weapons manufacture, and other issues that they deemed important. So, each of these organizations at the very least put restrictions on their investment managers that kept their pension money from going into such companies. This was the minimum action for socially responsible investing.
To a point. Some of our members would invest a token amount in companies that they deemed irresponsible in some way. By doing so, they became shareholders, and obtained the rights and privileges of being a shareholder. One of the rights and privileges was that shareholders could propose resolutions to be taken up and voted upon at corporate annual meetings. And that's where I came in. I was responsible for keeping up with the social and environmental issues that were most critical and relevant and reporting back to our members. They in turn might decide to file a resolution with a company, or to support a resolution that another group was planning to file. We often filed 50 or 60 resolutions a year, on everything from asking companies to report on their emissions to proposing increased wages for workers in maquiladora factories at the US-Mexico border, to asking companies to report on efforts to minimize or eliminate the glass ceiling. Our group was part of a broader network of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups and institutions around the US under the umbrella of an organization called the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), based in New York City. (A side benefit of this job was that I got to spend about 15 days a year in New York City at various meetings.)
We never filed a resolution with an expectation that we would get the necessary number of votes. Often, we were happy if 10% of the shareholders voted with us. But, a resolution on an issue often caught the attention of the company management, who would then meet with us in discussions. If there was some movement on an issue, we would often consider withdrawing our resolution.
I remember sitting, with my priest and nun colleagues, with corporate people from various companies, like GM and GE, Ford, and Texas Instruments and discussing whatever issue we had with them. It became apparent that corporate responsibility was a difficult goal. Whatever you think about corporations, good or bad, it is best to remember that they never do anything without looking at how it will affect the bottom line. If something cuts into profits, they are reluctant to do it. Corporate responsibility is rarely done because it will solve a problem, or right a wrong. Companies do not care about values unless they can be convinced that doing so will help their image and sell more products.
But even then, persuasion can take place. A member of our coalition was a small, Irish nun named Sister John Marie. She was the treasurer of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Houston, and she was legendary for what she accomplished. In a meeting with Jack Welch, then the CEO of General Electric, she made the case about how GE's work in nuclear weapons research was not only bad for the world, but also bad business and that the Sisters were planning to divest themselves of GE stock over their association with weapons laboratories in New Mexico. I don't know if Welch and GE's board were moving in that direction already and Sr. John Marie provided a gentle nudge over into a certain action, or if Sr. John Marie actually moved him in some way. I'm cynical enough to believe that GE was moving in that direction anyway and needed a push. Whatever the story, GE ended its management of the federal government's nuclear weapons research at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.
Which is where I get back to the quote, because it's easy to talk about corporate responsibility, and to urge corporations to do the right thing, and to promote that they take a long-term view over short-term profits. It's more difficult to convince them to do so. Promoting responsibility to corporations involves showing them that a long-term view can satisfy their goals, bring them credibility and increase profits. In the quote above, the speaker is Roberts Roemer, who fought the Atlantic City Electric Company (A.C.E) to keep it from acquiring land that would have ruined the historic character of Greenwich, New Jersey. What really stopped A.C.E? Their plans wouldn't be as profitable. They don't, as a corporation, care about historic character. Perhaps individual people in the corporation do, but the company does not. The company cares about bottom line. If organizations can understand this, meet them on those terms, and convince them using business logic, success is more certain that everyone gets what they want.
Regardless, sometimes being that strategic doesn't work either. The next time you hear calls for boycotts, you are witnessing what often happens when profits simply outweigh a corporation's willingness to consider any alternatives. I consider it the downside of capitalism, especially if their profits are made off of actions that have the potential or actuality of doing irreparable harm.
I don't know why this song comes to mind, but I think it has a lot to do with corporate responsibility. I really liked the version of Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton when I heard it but I also love Joni Mitchell's iconic version as well. I give you both - you decide.
If you want to learn more about Greenwich
Next up: Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey