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Corporate Responsibility Beyond Babel

Corporate Responsibility
At the outset, let me mention the fact that in the title of this post lies a Freudian slip. The intended title was ‘Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Labels’. But the new—unintended—title captures the thought perfectly. (And I’ll come back to that in closing.)
Devangshu Dutta

A few years ago, Third Eyesight was asked by a multi-billion-dollar global consumer brand to facilitate a round-table discussion focussing on the issue of how to drive ethical behaviour and sustainable business models into their sector. This company had a well-documented strategy and action plan until 2020, and their team was travelling together in India visiting other corporate and non-corporate initiatives, to learn from them.

For the round table, we brought together brands, retailers, manufacturers, compliance audit and certification agencies, craft- and community-oriented organizations, and non-government organizations (NGOs working on environment stewardship). Some were intrinsically linked to the consumer goods/retail sector, others were not. Among those present was Ramon Magsaysay award winner Mr Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organization that had, over several years, worked in recharging thousands of water reservoirs leading to the rebirth of several rivers.

The diversity (and sometimes total divergence) in views among the participants was a powerful driver for the debate during the day, which was the main intention behind having a really mixed group.

(Try this experiment yourself. Get a bunch of people together who define their work as being in the ‘corporate responsibility’ stream. Then ask them the meaning of that phrase, and watch the entirely different tracks people move on. You might be left wondering whether they were really working towards a common goal.)
At the end, though, the result was productive, since the divergent perspectives opened avenues that may have previously not been visible. The topics that were covered included labour standards and compliance, reduction of product-development footprint, closed-loop supply chains, water management, organic raw materials, energy conservation and community involvement in business. Some of the issues raised were:
• How are learnings from green factories consolidated and disseminated to other suppliers?
• How do companies plan to continue to support sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives considering the drastic economic changes and the dire retail scenario?
• What does fair trade have to do with sustainability?
• Minimum wage versus living wage
• Trade barriers and the need for government support for green products
• Why labour laws are not being followed? Are the laws outdated and impossible to follow? Are there any other reasons, which could be dealt with by companies themselves?
• Can consumer consciousness and pressures be brought to bear? Does the question ‘Is the product I am buying ethically produced’ come in the mind of an Indian consumer? Or even to the mind of the Indian retailer?
• The need to address the core issue of unbalanced demand and supply of workforce in cities
• What should responsible and aware companies do to stop other companies from polluting rivers and water systems?
• The role of village craft in providing learnings on efficient and responsible use of resources
Corporate Responsibility

Them. I. Us
Corporate Responsibility

My view is that these diverse areas and views can be aligned most effectively if we look at responsibility and sustainability in all their dimensions. These dimensions, to my mind, are:
- The environment
- The community
- The organization
- The individual

Most corporate responsibility/sustainability initiatives end up addressing only one of the dimensions to focus and simplify the action points. However, the reality is that there are many areas where the environment, the community and the organization overlap each other – many a times, when you ignore the interaction between these dimensions, you get totally divergent opinions. And the point of view related to your own history, geography and experiences further colour the opinion. The individual – ‘I’ – as a citizen, as a corporate manager, as a parent of future generations, or in any other role, is at the overlap of all three external dimensions. That should tell us something about where the action needs to be initiated.

Here is a suggested list to start with, which we can use to try out thought–experiments, viewing each issue in different dimensions and from different points of view (for example, buyer based in a developed market, supplier based in a developing country, an individual working in the supply chain, his family and broader community): 
• child/family labour
• fair pricing and fair compensation across the supply chain, including consumer, retailer, supplier and workers
• replacement of cottage-scale production with large-scale industrial production of goods
• setting up production in cities versus in villages
• organic versus inorganic
• synthetic/genetically modified versus natural raw materials

In closing, let me come back to ‘Babel’. According to the Book of Genesis, a huge tower was built ‘to the heavens’ to demonstrate the achievement of the people of Babylon who all spoke a single language, and to bind them together into a common identity. God apparently was not particularly happy with this self-glorifying attitude, and gave the people different languages and scattered them across the earth. 

Whatever your religious (or non-religious) affiliation, this story holds a gem of a lesson. No matter how noble the cause of the corporate responsibility warrior, it is good to be humble and allow diversity rather than trying to capture everyone under one monolith with an apparently common goal. The diversity may be a lot more productive and help to spread the benefits wider than one single initiative.

The day that we spent on the sustainability round-table certainly demonstrated that very well.

Devangshu Dutta is founder and chief executive of management consulting firm Third Eyesight (