Business Roundtable May Be Seeing the
Light with New Initiative
The SEE Change program hints at a tipping point for US
business community engagement of social, environmental, and economic
issues, but the program's success may depend on how critics view its
SocialFunds.com -- Recent developments suggest that a paradigm shift
is transforming the corporate world from exclusively assessing financial
impacts of decisions to integrating social, environmental, and economic
(SEE) considerations into corporate policies and practices. One such
development is the announcement late last month by the Business Roundtable,
an association of US corporate CEOs, of its SEE Change initiative
that seeks to create synergies between environmental stewardship,
social improvement, and bottom-line performance.
The initiative plays off the term "sea-change," invented by Shakespeare
to describe a profound bodily transmutation wrought by the sea (bones
to coral, eyes to pearls), to suggest that business community acceptance
of corporate social responsibility (CSR) may be passing the tipping
"We expect that SEE Change will result in a transformation in how
business leaders approach sustainable growth," said Marian Hopkins,
the Roundtable's director of public policy as well as of its Environment,
Technology, and the Economy Task Force. "While many companies now
embrace this concept individually, SEE Change breaks new ground by
making sustainable growth a concentrated focus for leading US companies
from every sector of the economy."
"We want the public to literally 'see change' in key areas of social
and environmental well-being, such as energy efficiency, water conservation
and quality, reduction of disease and increased literacy, while economic
growth is enhanced," Ms. Hopkins told SocialFunds.com.
The initiative specifically focuses on water sustainability, asking
participant companies to engage in projects that improve water quality,
quantity, and availability.
"Without water, nothing is sustainable," said Charles Holliday, CEO
of DuPont and chair of the Environment, Technology, and the Economy
Task Force. "It's not a requirement, but we're urging every company
to consider a sustainable growth project that addresses water."
Participant companies include Coca-Cola, Dow, Eastman Kodak, General
Electric, Procter & Gamble, Weyerhaeuser, and Xerox. The first company
on this list, Coke, illustrates the tension between the initiative's
aspirations and corporate reality.
Coke's Plachimada bottling plant, the company's largest in India,
has been shut down since March 2004 when the local village council
(or panchayat) refused to renew a license to operate due to "overexploitation"
of groundwater, which the council considers to be a common resource.
Coke appealed the decision to the state court in Kerala, and last
month the Kerala state government appealed the case to the Indian
"While we welcome any initiative that supposedly promotes sustainability,
we also view the Business Roundtable initiative, SEE Change, with
a great deal of skepticism," said Amit Srivastava, director of Global
Resistance, a California-based group opposing corporate globalization.
He also coordinates the India
Resource Center, a project of Global Resistance, which focuses
on corporate globalization in India. "We do so because we are adamant
that there can be no sustainable strategies on sustainability if the
primary stakeholders--the community itself--is not at the table."
While this particular issue in Plachimada has yet to be resolved,
it illuminates the double-edged sword of SEE Change. On the one hand,
the initiative could inspire companies to develop truly sustainable,
innovative solutions to such pressing problems. On the other hand,
it could present opportunities for companies to greenwash, or mask
environmentally and socially destructive or benign projects as if
they are beneficial.
"We want this program to be judged by its results--we believe the
accomplishments of our companies will answer any criticism that SEE
Change is just about 'greenwash,'" said Ms. Hopkins. "That's why we're
asking participating companies to commit to specific goals and metrics
and report publicly on their progress."
To give "teeth" to the initiative, the Roundtable requires participant
companies to measure improvement in SEE performance, but allows companies
to choose which metrics to employ. The chosen metrics must be "material"
in addressing social and environmental needs, "raise the bar" by implementing
long-term improvements, be transparent, meaningful, and reliable,
and be in place for significant periods--5, 10, or 15 years depending
on the company.
This flexibility encourages more companies to participate but it lays
the initiative open to a standard criticism of voluntary CSR programs;
specifically, that a lack of standardized metrics allows companies
to focus on their social and environmental strengths while downplaying
or altogether hiding their social and environmental weaknesses. Stakeholders
may ultimately decide if the initiative is substantive or greenwash
by closely examining the changes they see in corporate performance.
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