Thank you so much for agreeing to give an interview to Private Goodness.
You’ve had a long and varied career in corporate responsibility alongside volunteering for many organisations. Which achievement are you most proud of?
Helping to establish a free legal facility for the Government of Sierra Leone on behalf of the law firm I was working for at the time, Herbert Smith Freehills. Fair Deal Sierra Leone was about recognising that inward investment was critical if the country was to build the necessary infrastructure to grow, to support job creation and develop the public services that we in more advanced economies take for granted. The government was keen to work with international businesses and financial intermediaries to make this happen, but sometimes lacked the legal capacity to ensure that the contracts they were signing were value for money – in short, were they a fair deal? This was not about patronage, it was about working with the government legal team and ministers to develop skills and provide support that would endure for the long term.
The project touched a nerve with many in the firm as a way to deploy commercial skills to assist a poor country emerging from a very difficult period in its history and to build the foundations of a more hopeful future. Amongst other things, we were able to send lawyers out to work directly with the government for extended periods as well as bring lawyers to the UK for training and other support.
I left the firm in 2013. Sadly Sierra Leone has had to endure the Ebola crisis and the more recent landslide in Freetown in 2017, which were both devastating for the country. However, I am hugely proud that the firm maintained and grew its contribution during those periods, recognising that not only was it benefitting the country, but it was also now an important component in the firm’s culture. The value of the investment of time alone ran into the millions.
During my career I’m privileged to have helped established hundreds of initiatives responding to a diverse range of issues – climate change, human rights, international development, education and social enterprise – many of which are still going strong. But Fair Deal Sierra Leone stands out for me as a really substantive commitment that delivered a return for the business, our own people and crucially for the country.
When starting a new CR role in a company, how do you know which areas to focus on?
There are obviously various models that can be applied to determine focus areas – materiality assessments, Triple Bottom Line, layering over the UN SDGs etc. I spent a big chunk of my career working on the application of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to various industry sectors. I would say that even if you are not a human rights expert or practitioner there is a huge amount of support out there for those using the UNGPs as a lens to judge business priorities and performance – the excellent Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and the Institute of Human Rights and Business are worth a look. All of these tools and more are part of the mix, particularly in establishing priorities in relation to baseline expectations around human rights or environmental performance, for example, and then making the case for more ambitious, transformational change.
That said I think intuitively it’s also about understanding the context in which the business is operating and how a thoughtful approach to CR can help the company respond most effectively. How can CR help to foster innovation by incubating social enterprises in its core business or supply chain, which both help society and the business to achieve a mutually beneficial goal? How can CR stimulate diverse approaches to recruitment or learning and development? How can CR be deployed as an instrument to manifest the values or the purpose of an organisation? If we want to encourage the adoption of our products and services, if that’s a commercial imperative, or if we want to broaden our conversations with stakeholders in the community and demonstrate we are a brand or a business that takes a long term view and cares about the community – if they are our business priorities, then they should also be our priorities in CR. After that it’s just a question of methods and tactics.
What are the risks for companies that don’t consider CR?
There are obviously material reputational risks involved with getting it wrong or being seen to get it wrong on issues like human rights in the supply chain, on waste management and carbon reduction, or data protection and privacy issues, for example. I don’t think you can fully avoid those risks, particularly in large, global companies or companies with high profile brands – with the best will in the world it’s inevitable that one or more may have an impact on your business at any one time. CR is one tool that can help an organisation understand those risks, map likely areas of exposure and mitigate them where possible, but it’s equally a risk to assume that an effective CR programme is a panacea.
It’s also a risk to think of CR as purely about ensuring hygiene factor today, rather than as an instrument you can use to scan the horizon and prepare for the conversations that may have an impact on your business in the future. Plastic pollution, for example, is not a new phenomenon, but a confluence of events in the last two years has rapidly forced it up the agenda such that failing to engage is now a material risk for certain companies or sectors. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but sustainability professionals are pretty adept at that horizon scanning piece and I know a few who were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine on plastics a few years ago – it’s a business risk to employ people with the skills, the networks and the foresight to see what might be coming down the pipe, but disregard or deprioritise their concerns simply because they are not top of the agenda today. We have to take a long term view.
What are the top two misunderstandings people have about CR?
That it’s either all about compliance or it’s all about employee fundraising and volunteering.
Clearly when you are responding to issues like environmental sustainability or human rights, for example, there is a crossover with government policy and regulation, but those are by definition baseline expectations. It’s also about what kind of company do you want to be? How are you different from the company across the road and what value is there in being different? CR is one tool to help you foster an organisational culture that you can be proud of, one that helps you recruit, retain and develop brilliant people or incubate products and services that will respond to our most pressing needs, but you don’t get that with a tick box approach. It’s a mindset.
It's also really important to engage, enthuse and where possible mobilise your employees on some of these topics and there is no doubt that corporate partnerships with charities can be a really effective way to raise much needed funds and awareness of issues. Most major companies will have some form of employee giving and volunteering programme in place, and that’s a really important way of allowing employees to bring their full self to the work place, to work in teams, to demonstrate their values and to be ambassadors for the business in the wider community. But charity is not a proxy for corporate integrity and however effective your employee giving programme it can’t be your only response to some of the big ethical challenges of our time.
Do you have any advice for people who struggle to stay motivated in the face of many social and environmental challenges?
I paraphrase the ecologist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken who was once asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He said something like if I look at the numbers, what the data is telling us about the collapse of the only biosphere we have and the impact that will have on civilisation, and particularly on the most vulnerable, then how could I not be a pessimist? But if I think of all the people I meet working hard to address those challenges and find solutions in the fields of renewable energy, human rights and the protection of marginalised groups, then how could I not be an optimist? We cannot ignore the data. This is not about adopting a Panglossian view of the world. But we can seek out and collaborate with those who are finding solutions and draw energy from each other.
Thank you very much Richard!