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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2000 : Lessons Learned in Seattle

Lessons Learned in Seattle

by Bob Dunn

The photographic images of the violence in Seattle, WA, surrounding the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will remain with us for a long time. But what is most important to remember is what they blocked from our view: the real issues of substance that protesters were trying to raise. What Seattle should represent is a very visible and powerful symbol of how important the issues of social equity and environmental sustainability are and how important it is for governments, as well as the private sector, to improve transparency and engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders to address these issues.

Given the nature of information technology and transfer, economic integration, global communications and reduced barriers for capital and labor transfer, it is difficult to imagine a world where we do not have increased world economic inter-dependence. Although trade between nations reaches far back into our history, we are experiencing new efforts by the world’s citizens to speak out about and define the ground rules they want global trade to follow. We are seeing this among the citizens of the most prosperous economies, and also in developing economies, where governments and citizens have articulated what they expect when companies wish to access their natural or human resources or to develop new market opportunities.

As debate over trade rules takes place, it has become increasingly evident that companies need to establish a more comprehensive and consistent framework for engaging in global trade. Why? Because as people gain greater understanding about the consequences of trade, the companies that best serve the interests of their shareholders will be those who frame their business strategies in ways that anticipate, consider fairly, and balance the requirements of all their stakeholders. Leadership companies will understand that their success in acquiring resources and accessing markets will depend on the economic, social and environmental impacts of all their policies and practices.

As the market economy has spread and prospered, citizens have begun to hold companies more accountable. People are no longer confident that government is the most efficient vehicle for enhancing the quality of life for their families and future generations. And while there’s also great skepticism about the private sector, there is a growing understanding that the shortest route to a more just society and a more sustainable economy requires the partnership of the private sector.

Two enduring characteristics of entrepenuership through the centuries have been foresight and adaptability. It no longer takes much vision to see the future of global trade. It involves devising a system that involves new and broader examination of the costs and benefits of business decisions and companies should not fear that they will lose their competitive advantage by becoming more open and responsive to stakeholders. In fact, there is growing evidence that just the contrary is true. It is the companies who have implemented these values who are being rewarded in the new marketplace.

Change is generally unnerving. People and companies tend to focus on the risks associated with change rather than the opportunities it represents. But the opportunities in this case are real, tangible, and substantial. Whether measured in terms of access to capital, operating costs, financial performance, employees retention and productivity, enhanced brand image or greater customer loyalty—or in some instances, even a reduced regulatory burden—responsible business practices make good business sense for companies of all sizes and across all sectors.

Corporate social responsibility is not about being forced to make bad business decisions. Rather, it is about engaging in policies and practices that promote sustained commercial success. The challenge for the business community is to help define how global trade can serve economic, social and environmental purposes.

Stepping out ahead of others in the business community involves taking some risks. Being in business and leadership is all about risks. Based on the record to date, those that take up this challenge now will enhance their corporate reputation and early adopters are almost always market winners.

The concerns being articulated about trade are not fundamentally antagonistic to business. Companies have a vested interested in peace. Companies have a vested interest in having an educated and healthy population. Companies have a vested interest in the preservation of natural resources and in creating wealth which gives them access to greater capital and larger markets.

None of this will come about if global companies are narrow in their vision and make themselves an endangered economic species as we enter into a new century. The response of the business community to these concerns will not only determine a company’s future market value but the value of the market to our future.


Tips for Stakeholder Engagement

1 Do your homework.


Each stakeholder group has unique issues, interests and willingness to engage in a partnership or dialogue. When screening organizations, find out which companies each has worked with and what the results were. Check references. Was the group open-minded and positive? Did it keep its promises?

2 Seek common ground.

Learn which organizations you share vision or values. Find ways both parties can benefit and further their objectives. Make sure the risks and benefits to both sides are equitable.

3 Get buy-in.

To give weight and credibility to the relationship, it should be supported by those high up in both organizations.

4 Get to know each other.

Tell your company’s story. Invite representatives from the stakeholder group to your facilities and introduce them to the staff. Be as candid as possible in answering questions. Then turn the tables: Visit the group’s offices.

5 Set goals and deadlines.

Don’t let projects drag on. Even if it succeeds it may be good to disengage for a while to gain perspective on the relationship and the value (or lack thereof) it has brought your company.


Bob Dunn is president & CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a U.S.- based global business organization dedicated to promoting corporate social responsibility. BSR’s 1,500-plus members and affiliated companies represent nearly every sector of the global economy and collectively have annual revenues totaling more than $1.5 trillion and employ approximately seven million workers worldwide. Formerly a senior executive in corporate affairs for 13 years at Levi Strauss & Co., under Dunn’s direction BSR is one of the fastest growing business organizations in America and has been heralded as an “audacious experiment in common sense, research, and sharing that aims to prove that what’s good for humanity is good for business.” A recent venture, the Global Business Responsibility Resource Center, is one of the world’s largest research and information centers on corporate social responsibility. Its Web site,

www.bsr.org/resourcecenter, contains more than 50 reports on business, ethical, social, and environmental issues.

Business for Social Responsibility

609 Mission Street, 2nd Floor San Francisco, CA 94105 415-537-0888 fax: 415-537-0889 www.bsr.org.

 


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