Making lots money and feeling good about it: Reflections from the Corporate Social Responsibility Conference at Amway
For about 5 hours today, I sat through a conference held at the Amway headquarters in Ada on Corporate Social Responsibility.
About 125 people, mostly from the corporate world, participated in a conference entitled, Creating Impact: West Michigan Corporate Social Responsibility. The day-long conference featured two keynote speakers and several breakout sessions, all dedicated to the idea of corporate social responsibility or what some referred to as corporate sustainability.
This is a theme we have been writing about for the past two years and posting on our blog under Dissecting Green Capitalism.
The day began with an executive from Amway welcoming people and taking the opportunity to tell the audience about their practice of corporate social responsibility. The company founded by DeVos and Van Andel promotes volunteerism and financial giving amongst its employees as well as major charitable donations to numerous causes, according to the Amway spokesperson. The company spokesperson also said they were, “leveraging our Nutrilite products to children around the globe, in places like Mexico and Africa. These vitamins can be added to their native food to reduce anemia.”
One could argue that this is a nice charitable act, but what it also states about Amway and the whole corporate social responsibility trend is an unwillingness amongst global capitalists to address the root causes of problems, like malnutrition. Indeed, the comments from the Amway spokesperson set the tone for much of the rest of the day that this writer was present.
Before the first keynote speaker came to the podium, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell addressed crowd. Heartwell talked about his personal and the City’s own journey in sustainability, or what Heartwell referred to as the Total Quality Management Movement.
The first keynote speaker was Jim Musial with Wolverine Worldwide. Musial gave a brief company overview and stated that the company, with recent acquisitions, is the largest non-athletic shoe company in the world.
Musial then talked about what he referred to as the rise of the Citizen Consumer, which he defined as people who wanted to make purchases that were good for the environment or supported some cause. The Wolverine executive said this is what should drive our companies, what he called a socially conscious market.
However, when Musial talked about the company’s facilities abroad and the work they do with independent suppliers he was a little more vague about how they operate. Musial said they want good corporate practices on how workers were treated, but they don’t have a great deal of pull to make suppliers adopt standards that many consumers want. He also said that it was hard to find monitoring agencies that were reliable, but he did refer to a new resource called the EcoIndex, which apparently was started by industry people and significant involvement from Nike.
Musial ended his presentation by talking about the giving practices of Wolverine Worldwide, both locally and around the globe. He showed pictures of Wolverine employees giving clean water systems and free shoes to poor people in the Dominican Republic. The pictures of smiling Dominicans feed into this notion of social responsibility as charity, without addressing the reasons for structural poverty in countries like the Dominican Republic.
Musial was then joined by a few additional presenters, but little new information was provided, except by an ethics professor from MSU. Kyle Whyte talked about global capitalism and how it creates what he called, “wicked problems.” His comments left an impression on the crowd who kept referring to this phrae, “wicked problems,” throughout the day.
This mini-panel discussion was followed by the first breakout sessions and I attended the one on “Corporate Citizenship.” The panel included Eric Foster (Seeds of Change), Jeff Padnos (Padnos) and Pat Longeran (Fifth Third Bank). This session was moderated by Norman Christopher (GVSU), who kept gushing over local corporate practices, particularly ones that the panelists were involved in.
Longeran used good doublespeak in his comments by say that Fifth Third wasn’t just involved in finances, they changed people’s lives. He also talked about how Fifth third has banks in poor neighborhoods and how the company has hundreds of people who serve on local non-profit boards. Getting company members to sit on boards of non-profits is a growing trend in the corporate world.
Jeff Padnos spoke next and said that doing business right is like “applied religion.” He equated giving people a job with the idea of teaching them to fish, which was an interesting Orwellian twist of to the statement from Bishop Dom Helder Camara who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
The third speaker on this panel was Eric Foster, with Seeds of Promise. Foster talked about getting people to be masters of their own destiny and local groups to partner with to make the necessary changes. Foster’s task is to get 40 people involved in place-based, resident led leadership that will benefit a particular neighborhood, to solve their own problems and create their own capital. Again, this is a nice sentiment, but it does not address any root causes, particularly structural injustices, which created poverty in the communities in Grand Rapids his organization is working with.
After lunch, participants then heard from Neil Hawkins, the sustainability person from Dow Chemical. Hawkins said that Dow has been involved with environmental sustainability for a long time and proves this by showing the audience a picture of a patent from 1906 for waste cogeneration.
Hawkins also talked about the company’s involvement with the 2012 Olympics and said that their involved was “not a form of greenwashing, but a chance to show case sustainable products. Numerous human rights groups disagreed and called out companies like Dow at the 2012 Olympics in London for engaging in greenwashing.
Howkins also talked about his company’s partnership with the Nature Conservancy to further brand their identity as having a commitment to environmental protection. We addressed this partnership in a previous posting, but would say that big beltway conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy are more committed to lobbying in DC than actually doing environmental justice work around the country.
During the Q&A someone did ask the Dow representative about the companies track record and that they have a history of making “bad decision” on environmental policy. Hawkins did say these were “old, old problems” and that “I am not going to “apologize or flog myself for past problems.” So, the people of India who have never really received justice over the Union Carbide (a subsidiary of Dow) catastrophe are just the victims of an old, old problem? What about Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Dow created Agent Orange and the millions of Vietnamese who are still suffering from exposure? Just a problem of the past?
I left at this point, since it seemed pretty clear what was meant by “Corporate Social responsibility.” To be clear, I was not expecting the content to be much different than what I heard, but I went because I think it is always important to not only monitor what sectors of power are up to, but to hear directly from those in power about how they see the world.