Towards Capitalism 2.0

Here I review a new book ‘Corporate Responsibility Coalitions’ by David Grayson and Jane Nelson 

In the brouhaha surrounding the great debates on responsible business practice, the focus always seems to be on what individual companies are doing and which CEOs are the leaders – or on the ropes. Perhaps that’s inevitable. We like our heroes and villains, to spot the good guys and condemn the baddies.

This book helpfully reminds us that actually the big issues transcend any one company or hero leader. The deep-rooted sustainable solutions we need are usually to be found through cross-industry, indeed cross sector, working. That means most progress is made through collective action in alliances and coalitions.

In fact that’s a message at least one of the current individual ‘heroes’ would heartedly endorse – as Unilever’s Paul Polman keeps saying “If we achieve our own plans but no one joins us on the journey, we’ll have failed.”

Think of issues like responsible investment, human rights, greenhouse gas emissions, health & safety, and the impact of community involvement, and look back at developments in the last decade: the role of organisations and initiatives in making progress becomes apparent – Equator Principles and Principles for Responsible Investment, UN Global Compact, WBCSD Greenhouse Gas Protocol, Responsible Care in the chemical industry and (at Corporate Citizenship) our very own LBG standard.

David Grayson and Jane Nelson – both longstanding veterans of the responsible and sustainable business scene – have brought together in this book a wealth of material: profiles of 12 leading international coalitions, a history of the rise of corporate responsibility, an assessment of the current state of play and a 10 step ‘agenda for action’ going forward. They draw on their own experience in business alliances to provide lessons and ask searching questions about effectiveness. They don’t duck some ‘elephant in the bedroom’ issues such as what to do about laggard members.

Laggards are the weakest link of coalitions. They may be one reason why so few current coalitions are really pushing the boundaries on Capitalism 2.0 – the new vision for responsible, well-regulated, ‘socially useful’ capitalism that I for one yearn for. It’s almost as if the global financial crisis never happened, despite the huge flaws it revealed and the massive economic damage it did.

On first opening the book, I instantly warmed to the subject, seeing its dedication to the memory of another of the big beast veterans of this movement, Robert Davies, who died tragically early in 2007. As deputy CEO of BITC, he was the first person to encourage me, when seeking career advice at the tender age of 27, to apply my business skills to the task of changing the world – my palpable lack of progress since then would only spur his enthusiasm to try harder.

The proposition in this book is that coalitions can help speed up making progress and there’s much to learn from past experience.

If I had a criticism, it’s not about the book, but instead directed at those of us active in the wider world of coalitions and alliances – that we are not blunt enough about the limitations and don’t work hard enough to overcome them.

The biggest limitation is surely that individual companies like getting the credit for their efforts, and are reluctant to share the limelight – and given the criticisms routinely heaped on companies, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to keep hold of good news. But the price is less progress overall.

Another is that regulators are naturally suspicious when companies get together to hatch plans to intervene in competitive markets – anti-cartel legislation is rightly tight. Designed to stop bad collusions, it hinders well-motivated co-operative action as well. NGOs too are quick to cry foul when companies sit down together, fearing some behind-the-scenes lobbying is being cooked up in contradiction to their individually-stated laudable intents.

One solution is to conduct coalition business as openly as possible, and with as many sectors and stakeholders at the table as possible. But that requires high levels of trust among individual participants, a clear focus on outcomes, and good brokers with the right skills to strengthen bonds, overcome obstacles and drive processes forward.

What will force the pace? Perhaps the only good thing to be said about the looming ecological and social crises is that they may spur a new generation of alliance-building that works across sectors and involves many stakeholders. By learning from the past, this book offers us pointers to that future.

My advice is simple. One – buy the book. Two – resolve to invest some of your time and energy in collaborative working. Three – be a little less focused on claiming credit for your own company, and a little more on boosting collective endeavour. Like that we can all help change the world a little faster.

Corporate Responsibility Coalitions: the past, present and future of alliances for sustainable capitalism, by David Grayson and Jane Nelson
Greenleaf Publishing 414pp Hardback ISBN 978-1-906093-81-5


This post first appeared on 3BL Media, here.

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