May 2010

Harmonizing upwards

One environmentalist’s view of corporate evolution and CSR

By Heather Ednie

Mike Simpson has a story to tell. It is about an eco-warrior whose work in places like Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Peru set him against the big mining companies and corporations in general. But over time, his views about the corporate world evolved into something quite different. He came to believe that companies are not faceless machines, but are made up of people who can change the direction of the corporation, sometimes for the better.

This man is Simpson himself, executive director of One Sky, a Canadian not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) that promotes social change and sustainable living.

CIM: You say you were once a radical environmentalist but now have changed your views on corporations. What is your outlook today?

Simpson: I still believe we need to be active promoters for environmental and social justice, to encourage positive change on the planet. But I’m not lumping all corporate behaviour into one big basket. I’ve experienced an evolution in my own thinking. For a long time, I held the view of a corporation as an entity that is structuralist in nature, formed by shareholders. It’s simplistic, though it does hold some truth. But now I’ve evolved my own thinking and I’m looking at corporations as entities that do evolve as well.

CIM: How so?

Simpson: I’ve realized that today’s corporation is not a singular, predictable entity, but an evolutionary spectrum that varies according to the makeup of the individuals in the company and the context within which they work. The fact is, social change in entities — in corporations, NGOs and governments — is mostly determined by the individuals who make up the organization. If they have higher values, the organization will too. The problem is the exceptions. There are plenty of people out there who do the right thing. I’m not becoming a corporate apologist, but I’ve changed my outlook.

CIM: Where does corporate social responsibility (CSR) fit in?

Simpson: CSR presents an exciting challenge, if we can figure it out. In the past, these issues scared people, but now is change time. Some individuals running companies are recognizing their responsibility and embracing the need to act accordingly — it’s a big plus in my mind. I believe that if people are doing business, they should be held accountable.

CIM: There is a perceived “governance gap” in CSR implementation. What’s your take?

Simpson: There are two ways to implement CSR, and I believe both are needed to really see improvement. There’s the voluntary structure, where people set up their own guidelines. The trick is to have them harmonize upwards. International standards, such as those from the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and IFC [International Finance Corperation], can help ensure that groups meet minimum requirements. Those minimum standards should become enforced compliance. But legal enforcement is required because, unfortunately, there are enough players who will try to find their way around the guidelines. Today, we’re at the beginning of the process. In time, we will need even higher standards, if we’re to see real change.

CIM: How can a mining company find an appropriate NGO to partner with on a project?

Simpson: There are resources in Canada to tap into. Canadian NGOs are organized under different mechanisms, such as the Canadian Environmental Network. Companies can go to the network to find out what NGOs in Canada are involved with counterpart NGOs in a specific region. Or, on a meta scale, companies can work with caucuses or networks on specific topics and tap into a wealth of experience and information. There are also many NGOs to engage with who can provide necessary information and resources.

CIM: What should companies keep in mind when working with an NGO?

Simpson: As NGOs, we bring with us the experience of civil society and we enjoy a high level of trust from society. However, to hold their head high at the end of the day, we need to maintain a distance from industry. Although we can’t sub-contract to corporations, we would partner on projects. Companies should remember that working for an NGO is hard work. There are major capacity issues and constraints that limit our ability to engage staff over time. Over the last 20 years, the number of Canadian environmental NGOs has dropped from between 1,200 and 1,500 down to around 700. It can be a real struggle to find the means to operate.

CIM: What’s a realistic timeline for the evolution of such partnerships?

Simpson: In five years, I hope we will be deeper into the subject of how NGOs can cooperate with the private sector. It’s a slow process, and governments move slowly. But we’re keen to see movement, and it’s becoming more nimble as companies focus on collective solutions to global problems. Together, we need to frame local and national work on a global scale.

CIM: What projects are you currently working on?

Simpson: Currently, we’re working in Peru with the Amazon Conservation Association, trying to develop conservation alternatives. As well, we’re active in Nigeria, where we’re training people in environmental and social justice to be leaders in it; to be able to sit in a boardroom and negotiate. I’m interested in fostering leadership, to enable multi-stakeholder dialogue to be effective. We need all voices in the same room to work out solutions. A final project we have underway is here in Canada, where we’re focused on alternative energy, working with the Canadian Renewable Energy Alliance.

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