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  • Corporate Citizens Stand Up – Consumers Respond

    Published on Wednesday, July 3, 2013

    At its most recent annual meeting, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz responded to a shareholder’s challenge to the company’s declaration of support for gay marriage legislation in its home state of Washington. His response was measured in tone, yet striking and forceful in its content. His comments affirmed Starbucks commitment to inclusion and equitable treatment (independent of the Supreme Court decisions which came later) for all people associated with the company, regardless personal characteristics such as sexual orientation.

    Schultz’ declaration with regard to Starbucks policy, and the clarity with which the company spoke out in support of marriage equality, was not news to those inside the company, nor really was it news to people who follow employment practices across companies. Yet it became a target for a shareholder activist who thought, perhaps, that he might be able to create some negative publicity or an awkward moment for the company. Yet it didn’t work.

    When faced with a choice to do something that is far-reaching and is the right thing to do, versus doing something that is easier, and is an acceptable thing to do, what compels you to do the right thing?  This is an important question for all of us to ask ourselves as we seek to consider the impact of our actions on ourselves, family, friends, and the planet.

    For business leaders these are important questions to ask – and answer – if they want their organizations to contribute to the betterment of the world, and actually if they want to have a world in which all of us can continue to exist and live together in respectful communities.

    We do many things as human beings in order to stay alive. In general we ‘say’ that we want to make the world a better place for future generations and we anticipate being on the planet for many years into the future. Yet we regularly engage in activities that have horrific negative consequences for basic survival.  Not to say anything about the other actions that we engage in that bring some short-term acceptable result yet add to a cumulative negative impact to long-term survival and betterment.

    The noise people are now making about these negative impacts, as well as the noise coming from the planet, has reached such a volume that many people who didn’t previously want to pay attention, or simply weren’t able to, must pay attention now – we can’t avoid it.

    Sustainability and Action

    We learn about the consequences of our actions so quickly now because information is immediately accessible via the internet. Commentary about the consequences of our actions is also instantaneous.

    The recent building collapse in Bangladesh has caused individuals to look more closely at their clothing labels and caused business leaders to look at their contracts with production facilities. Some businesses are cancelling contracts and moving to different facilities while others are choosing to stay in Bangladesh and seek to make long term improvements in the facilities and working conditions there.

    The discovery of GMO wheat in a field in Oregon brought an immediate cancellation of a wheat contract between the US and Japan, heightened testing of wheat exported to Europe and South Korea, and has resulted in a lawsuit by US farmers against Monsanto. Monsanto says that the wheat was placed in the field by saboteurs. It is not yet clear what options will be available for positive movement forward here.

    The debate about energy independence and the consequences of oil and gas production is, for now, significantly focused on the costs and benefits of fracking as a production method and the use of tar sands oil as an input in the production process. Many people are actively raising questions and alarms about both costs and benefits and many business leaders are trying to figure out what ‘stand’ they will ultimately take on this issue.

    Each of these topics highlights a current example of ongoing issues in which there are both far-reaching ‘right’ actions to take as well as acceptable actions that could be taken. Right actions are difficult to take, as the debates surrounding them are contentious with various groups proposing possible choices. Acceptable actions one could take are easier, yet they do not solve the problem that generated the need for action nor do they delineate a clear path to change and improvement.

    Choices to Make

    So what do you do? Something that is bold, and that you believe will improve the world and our prospects for long term survival, or something that you see as acceptable, that fits within a general operating plan and allows your business to move forward in a way that won’t draw attention – either from the press, shareholders or critics.

    Some people choose to do things that are acceptable, with all good intent. They are not the ones to break the mold and do something bold and challenging to convention, so they follow acceptable practice. There is social benefit in this option as continuous change and breaking of the mold can be destabilizing to a society. Yet there is also a cost associated with doing what is perceived as acceptable. The social changes that are essential to an evolving society bent on improving itself and enhancing the survival and growth prospects of its members will suffer if ‘doing the acceptable’ is the goal of all members.

    Fortunately for all of us, there are many leaders who choose to do what they believe is right and bold, regardless what other people do. They will step into a world of uncertainty and act from a personal base of what they hold to be the right thing to do in a particular situation, rather than acting from a broader base of what the general public, business critics, financial analysts or shareholders might believe is an acceptable thing to do.

    Consumers, employees, and community members who are aware of these actions can make choices to reward, punish or ignore these leaders and their organizations.  Leaders can persist with their actions, with what they believe to be right, and work hard to get people to come with them. If they are successful leaders then people will follow. Yet if they are not successful leaders, people will not follow, no matter how ‘right’ the action taken.  It is this combination of successful, respectful leadership and ‘right action’ that I personally look for in companies I seek to support. I encourage you to do the same. Regardless your stance on the issues before us we all need to look carefully and critically at the actions of organizations we support – it is a very important step for our future.

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