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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Jonathon Porritt, Founder, Forum for the Future

JP July 2013

Who is Jonathon Porritt?

Jonathon has been a campaigner on environmental issues for 40 years.

He has campaigned extensively in support of the Green party in England and Wales.

He is a co-founder of sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future and from 1993 to 1996 he was chairman of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future.

He is a patron of Population Matters and current President of Sustainability South West.

He received a CBE in 2000 for services to environmental protection.

Tell us what the sustainability agenda looks like at the moment and businesses’ role in being part of a more sustainable future.

I think it’s very interesting for people to understand the role of business at the moment to create a more sustainable world. It’s a pretty odd situation frankly that business seems to be clearer about its role and about the necessary levels of leadership than government is – and that’s all around the world, not just in the UK.

It’s also clearer about its role than investors or consumers are, so it’s a fascinating time in the history of corporate sustainability. Most of the world’s leading companies have now got fairly, clear positions on how to interpret the sustainability agenda.

There are obviously varying levels of leadership and ambition, but the agenda don’t seem to have been knocked off course by government backsliding and are essentially still trying to make better things happen in their day-to-day performance on social and environmental issues.

So for me as a campaigner on sustainability, I find myself in an odd position of finding business in a more progressive place than anyone else.

This is interesting, because I think there’s a perception companies aren’t doing enough. Is there an anti-corporate sentiment around at the moment?

I think it’s wholly understandably that a very large number of people are deeply sceptical about the role of big multinationals. The track record isn’t good and the truth is there are a large number of companies that are out there still doing very bad things rather than very good things and are utterly unconcerned about the impact on the environment and on society.

So you can understand why campaigners would start from a historical position that says ‘well, these guys haven’t proved themselves’ yet. And in truth it is fair to say that no company, even the leaders like Unilever, M&S and Nike, is doing as much as it should be doing. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

The rather more subtle question is, “are they doing as much as they can do, given the context in which they’re operating?” And that’s the important question. And I think at that point, the kind of ingrained cynicism of a lot of NGOs is very unhelpful and it makes light of what are quite difficult decisions inside companies to improve performance in this area, and it seems to imply that all corporate leaders are cynically manipulating public opinion which is, quite frankly, complete and utter tosh. And I guess also it makes people feel even more disempowered about the potential for change than they would be otherwise.

So overall it doesn’t seem to me to be an appropriate response. It’s understandable, given historical context, but it’s not appropriate unless you distinguish between the sheep and the goats.

I think a lot of NGOs are waking up to that fact. I know the WWF are working more with Coca-Cola to protect the polar bear. I guess a lot of NGOs are realising they’re stronger working together with companies, which is a good thing. But is there not an inherent conflict in some sectors? The standard example is tobacco of course. Are there some industries where CSR and the company’s primary activities just won’t ever align?

There are some that won’t align and tobacco is undoubtedly one of them. I’m on the record as saying that anyone who puts tobacco and corporate social responsibility in the same sentence is either sadly deluded or paid-for by the tobacco company.

A business that sets out systematically to kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people is beyond any pale of responsibility. There are some businesses that just won’t ever play a part in a sustainable world.

So you have to be very forthright about that, but that shouldn’t overshadow the degree to which most industrial sectors are really trying to work out what it looks like to succeed in a very different world, what that means in terms of their relationship with their investors, their consumers and their employees and I take my hat off to the ones that are looking purposefully at what those changes are going to entail.

What about industries where we need them but they come under a lot of scrutiny e.g. the oil industry. You said a while ago that engineers have said that they can extract hydrocarbons from pretty much anywhere as long as the price is right. That makes them sound like they’re very profit-driven, thinking about short-term rather than long-term. But BP has been known as ‘beyond petroleum’ for years. Is this the way companies should be thinking, as being in the middle of planning for the future?

I wish BP were thinking like that. Five or six years ago that’s the way BP was thinking and they had come to the conclusion that they needed to do two things. Firstly, they needed to be really good at meeting today’s demands, which I call the current mandate, and secondly they had to get really good at what their future mandate would look like, which is ultimately living in a low-carbon world.

And that’s the position that Shell and BP had five or six years ago. Regrettably both of them have given up that position now and they’re both pretty much focused on hydrocarbons, on oil and gas, and they play a little bit in biofuels on the margins but it’s not really terribly important to them or their investors, so they’ve gone backwards, not forwards.

And that’s why, to be honest, Forum for the Future won’t work any longer with Shell or BP. We find that their position is unhelpful – they won’t say what they think about climate change and they won’t respond to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that says that business as usual policies will take us to a four degrees centigrade increase by the end of the century.

And they won’t get involved in the science, because if they do, they’d have to say what their scientists tell their boards of directors, which is that this is taking us to the brink of apocalypse. So it’s hard to be sympathetic to companies like BP and Shell because they know what they’re doing, they have the science at their disposal, but of course their response is ‘well, fine, but Governments haven’t regulated for this, so we’ll continue what we’re doing until Governments regulate it.’

Why have they changed their positions? Does this just come down to the people making the decisions?

A lot of it’s to do with people, a lot of it is to do with the politics of the oil and gas sector. The incredible impact of cheap gas in the US has changed so much over the last three to four years and because they can see that governments haven’t really got the will to force through, for example, a proper price on carbon, they know that their investments seem to make sense in the short-term, even if they’re catastrophic in the long-term. So it is a question of leadership and they are under massive pressure from their shareholders – I don’t want to underestimate that, I mean if you’re a main board director of BP at the moment you’re feeling a lot of pressure from investors, reminding them they have a responsibility to generate the dividends on which many people depend. And those people include large numbers invested through their pension funds.

So basically it isn’t so clear cut, we have to find better ways to generate equity and equality rather than going after individual companies?

Absolutely, and this is definitely down to governments. If governments are not sending the right signals to the carbon-intensive sectors that their days are numbered then people will continue to invest in them, to expect their dividends will come through from them, and that we can continue to have business as usual until such time as suddenly everything has to turn around, which will be catastrophic for the capital markets. A complete nightmare. So nobody’s doing anyone any favours here. We know what the end point will be, which is radical de-carbonisation. That’s not a nice-to-have – it just has to happen, and the less painful it can be for society the better. And this kind of flagrant dereliction of responsibility is just unbelievable to continue to look at.

In HR at the moment there’s the whole debate in embedding CSR into an organisation’s DNA, so there are steps you can take e.g. having a zero waste policy, but one argument coming from HR is that people aren’t bought into this, so the next people to rise up the ranks will think this isn’t important or doesn’t matter. So from a people perspective what can be done to help people understand why this is important, from an organisational perspective?

Abosolutely, so the people perspective is one part of the overall framing of what companies can do, but it’s a really critical part. Companies have to really work at this and they need to have an internal engagement strategy for their employees, just as they have an external engagement strategy for other stakeholders.

Some companies do get this right, they do focus very much on those twin responsibilities of a) information, awareness, careful explanation of why the company is doing what it’s doing, all those kinds of things, and that’s very important, a lot of companies don’t do it as well as they might and b) much more important than a), finding opportunities for employees to get involved in and take part in the sustainability strategy. That is to say, finding ways for employees to be agents of change themselves rather than leave it up to everyone else in the company.

And that can go all the way through from turning off your screens when you leave the office to managing waste more effectively to inviting employees to think about what they can do outside the workplace. How, for example, does sustainability at work carry on over to their responsibilities as individual consumers?

So the whole engagement story is crucially important. Some companies struggle with it and don’t rate it as important as some of the outward stuff and I do think they’re wrong in that regard.

I think one of the biggest challenges is making the story accessible and interesting and powerful to everyone, and we see companies facing that problem. So for example the whole ‘better world for your children’ is a great narrative but does it only work for parents? All you say about about turning off screens, recycling etc sounds great, but they sound like actions rather than why people should buy into it, so what have you seen are the things that people jump on to buy in this concept of a sustainable future?

Stories, basically. I think that there’s only so much you can do by explaining factual and scientific reasons for getting more involved in sustainability issues. There are only so many times you can lay out the science of climate change before everyone’s eyes glaze over.

It needs to be connected to the stories inside and outside the company. Here’s an example: in any big retailer that has a large asset-base of stores and distribution centres, it’s perfectly possible to bring the story of energy efficiency alive via those responsible for making those assets more efficient. So don’t bang on about the numbers, such as x number of energy units saved. Instead focus on the people who are doing that work and tell their stories because their stories are infinitely more powerful than the numbers themselves. And when you can shout loudly that this story is part and parcel about what makes that person’s working life work well, why it’s so important for the company etc, and is connected to the bigger issues, you can work from the micro-level to the bigger issues, rather than working from the bigger issues down to the micro-level.

Interesting point and that sounds very reasonable in an organisation, showing how a person’s action affects other people. Organisations have a problem in that there’s so much going on in this sphere and so many ‘tugs on heartstrings’ and I think people have become more easily able to ignore these types of stories. So I guess you have to connect with the individual. What about the local community? Local communities seem like a good route to success because people are most connected to that.

Yeah, it’s about finding out what people care most about and then working in a story that way. I think a lot of companies these days are much more focused on their role in the community and what they can do, how they can be supportive of various initiatives in the community, and how they can let the community play a bigger role in what happens inside the company.

A lot of retailers are thinking of this as a two-way street: what they can do inside the community and what they can allow people from the community to come into the stores, car parks etc to do. There’s no doubt that for companies that have a big UK focus, community engagement is a great way to make things happen and a great way to involve employees. I’m not at all cynical about this, most companies don’t have trouble inspiring employees to get involved in local fundraising initiatives and volunteering, getting involved in mentoring programmes etc. The level of commitment in volunteering from companies in the UK is astonishing – people hardly bother to comment on it though.

If you’re a global company you’ll think of course about the global side of things as well as the local and community side of things. If you’re sourcing materials from abroad you have a dual-responsibility to think about the impact on communities in the UK but also the impact on the supply chain on suppliers in far flung countries. Ultimate they have to look both ways at the supply chain.

How about Generation Y and the difference with other generations? Are they inherently more ‘caring?’

True up to a point, but it’s not that they all become incredibly consistent concerned consumers. This stuff tends to be inconsistent. It is an important generational shift and a lot of this comes down to what happens in their own peer group, what media they consume, what social media and blogs they read.

Bit by bit what socially responsible businesses should do is changing, and there is uproar every time a company gets it wrong, and there are hate campaigns for companies that are seen to have acted really irresponsibly, and that’s a form of pressure that companies have never had to deal with before.

But at the same time you can see on social media that companies that do get things right win support, they do get people indicating that they are happy to buy their product because they are vaguely aware that they are trying to do something good for the environment. That’s better than nothing.

But do you think the anti-corporate sentiment is a problem for creating the future we need to have?

No, not really. I mean from my perspective this thing is a kind of continuum of different voices about the role of corporations and it’s a very relevant, lively, positive theme and I’m delighted there are deeply anti-capitalist, anti-corporate campaigners out there making their voices heard and being difficult about things. It’s all part of the rich mix. It’s not where I would position myself and I hope people can get an accurate sense of what’s really going on rather than what they hear what’s going on. But I don’t think it’s a barrier to change, it’s part of the evolving process.

Quite a few companies are looking for charity partners. What should companies look for in a charity partner?

Something beyond the money. I’m not hugely supportive of companies that just define a sum of money and then set up a committee to dole out the fund – it’s very old world corporate social responsibility, very archaic. I mean it’s better that companies do it than they don’t do anything but it’s not what companies should be doing these days. They should be thinking more carefully about how to involve those charities in their work, about how they can involve their employees in the work of those charities.

Here’s an example. I’m a non-exec director of construction company Wilmott Dixon, reviewing all relationships with external charities to see how we can work more closely together in order to help socially excluded young people to get a better chance in their community, and to do that through greater involvement in the construction industry.

In the old days Wilmott Dixon might just have doled out money. Now we’re thinking very strategically about which charities we want to work with to develop joint programmes to reach those disadvantaged people better than we can do on our own.

And I guess the more aligned the charity is with the company’s goals the better it is? Like a supermarket allowing smaller companies to tap into its supply chain.

Absolutely, and of course the more aligned it is the greater the chance of involving your employees in it, because that’s their core expertise, and they already have their engagement.

It’s interesting you’re on board of directors, is that a good way to create change? I’ve heard recently that NGOs are going after shareholders and telling them why it’s important to work towards a sustainable future, rather than targeting the management.

It’s a hard call getting to investors because as you know it’s often not individuals, it’s institutional organisations acting anonymously, but it’s a legitimate way of widening out the campaign. For me personally I’ve taken non-exec directorships because it opens up a new perspective on different issues.

So with engagement, when I was a non-exec director of Wessex Water a few years ago one of the areas I was most involved with was how to inspire and empower employees to be involved with the company’s CSR and I must say the company did it very well. They were one of the companies that had a way of reaching out, engaging and providing training and support for employees. It was a hugely empowering story. I know a lot about HR from being a non-exec director, much more than I’ve learnt through being a campaigner.

Are boards viewing people differently i.e. in a move away from the 19th century view of ‘optimising human resources,’ which was very clinical.

I think one of the great benefits of the CSR agenda is that people realise you can’t make sustainability stick unless you have your employees not only up to speed on what it means but fully participating in its delivery. So that’s where CSR is today.

Is transparency a big part of the sustainable future? Ultimately, just because a company is transparent it doesn’t mean they’re truthful and just because they’re guarded it doesn’t mean they’re dishonest.

New technology makes it far harder for any organisations, including charities, to keep things confidential and out of any public domain, but they’ll always be areas of commercial confidentiality that have to remain confidential.

Companies need to have that level of confidentiality without which they couldn’t operate effectively and many companies spend a lot of money protecting their IP and assets from the prying eyes of those who want to see it. I don’t think anyone is talking about total transparency of commercially confidential data in the public domain.

But things that impact society and the environment, it’s harder and harder to keep that stuff out of the public domain, and the more transparent a company can be in that area, the better it is.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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