“We try to look at places where corporations are having a huge impact on justice issues or sustainability and environmental issues, and we try to time the work that we do so that it can have the most impact,” says Laura Berry, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. ICCR’s efforts recently led to a headline-making agreement with Ford Motor Company, in which the automaker is publishing detailed plans for attaining the 30-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 it committed to in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.
ICCR was born of Apartheid South Africa and a group of Protestant shareholders who asked General Motors to reconsider its extensive investment in the counry, and in the ensuing 37 years they’ve used shareholder power to influence a host of economic, social-, and environmental-justice issues. Most recently they launched a campaign to pressure GMO giant Monsanto to abandon its genetically modified sugar beets until more research can be completed on the long-term impacts of GMO crops on human and biodiversity health.
Berry will be in town April 29 to speak to San Antonio’s Socially Responsible Investment Coalition annual gathering. For more info on the event or ICCR’s work, visit sric-south.org or iccr.org.
When companies act on these suggestions or ideas, do you think they tend to act more from a sense of morality or ethics, or even a faith-based perspective, more from a practical “well that could cost us a lot of money,” or from a fear of bad public exposure?
I think it’s a mix of the three things. But I think the reason that this has been so powerful for almost 40 years, there’s a couple things that are going on. First, there’s a lot of talk about the prophetic voice of faith. I think that investors who are looking at their investments throught this higher standard of, kind of morality, frankly — you know it doesn’t really matter what religion somebody is; all faith traditions agree on certain things around how we treat each other, and how we take care of the planet — and so I think that one of the things that makes this powerful is because it is a conversation between human beings. Human to human, the person across the table — even a lot of CEOs and very high-level executives — are people first, they’re parents, so that there really is a moral or a faith-driven impetus to the individual’s commitment to working with us on an issue.
I think in some cases we’re finding more and more research that is showing that what they call ESG issues — environmental, social, and governnance issues — actually impact returns. We filed resolutions 15 years ago, with CitiGroup, Bank of America, Wachovia, on predatory lending, and the securitization of subprime debt. If they had listened to us 15 years ago, some of what we’re seeing in this debacle would not have happened. We were concerned about it from a moral standpoint: people couldn’t afford these loans; the practices were not the best business practices. So we’ve been talking about this a long time. We filed the first resolution on climate change in 1990.
In the past eight years, there was a lot of talk that Bush was bringing faith back into public life, and certainly into governmental life. Do you think you’ve seen more of a faith-based approach in business, or more of an ethic-based approach to business in the past eight years?
Oddly enough, no, I really don’t. I think what has started to happen is that as regulations have started to be deconstructed and business has become more self-regulating, I think what’s happened is the gap between good business practice and folks who get a little greedy — which is always a risk in capitalism — I think that gap has started to show up. And I think that because the gap has started to show up and people are noticing that there are a lot of folks that aren’t doing well, I think that folks are starting to universally agree that if you’re rational it looks like things are not going so well. But if you’ve got some faith you’re hoping it’s gonna get better. So I think that people — this is my own point of view, I’m not speaking for my organiztion — my own point of view is that people need faith a lot more than they did 10 years ago because there’s been a lot of things that have been really, really troubling that have been going on. And I’m not connecting this with the Bush Administration or not, I’m just saying that ... climate change is clearly real; everybody agrees that climate change is really happening. We have had a collapse of the finanaical markets that we have not seen since the 1920s. There’s a war that was supposed to be short and solve a problem that has seemed to stay with us and a lot of Iraqis and a lot of young Americans have been wounded or killed.
So there’s a lot of trouble and I think that people all get more faithful and sort of say, well, listen man, I may not be able to fix this by thinking, but maybe if I say, my faith tells me, X, Y, and Z and I’m gonna hold myself to a higher moral standard, and I’m gonna talk to the companies that I invest in and hold them to a higher moral standard. I think sometimes that works. So I think people are sort of thinking maybe faith is one of the few things that can actually get us through this.
What are some issues right now where you feel `ICCR` could really make a difference if you focus your attention on them?
One of the big issues is corporate responsibility in providing affordable health insurance to their employees. We’ve seen some big changes for example in Wal-mart’s approach to providing less-expensive health insurance to even their part-time employees. I think that is an issue where we have pushed and worked for a really long time where we’re starting to see some breakthroughs. I think in climate change we have seen a huge move where companies 10 years ago didn’t even want to acknowledge that human acitivity might contribute to climate change. Now companies — like this agreement with Ford yesterday, which was really quite a groundbreaking thing — companies are now not only agreeing to measure the impact of their products and their production operations, but they’re now agreeing to report back to us and say, here’s a commitment we’re gonna make, here’s how we’re gonna reduce it and we’re gonna prove to you that we’re doing it. And that’s a kind of change that is really huge. Some of the other areas, on the corporate governance issues — that includes things like executive compensation, board composition, some of those kinds of issues, and we’re seeing a huge change in what they call the “say on pay” resolutions — where shareholders are getting disgusted with corporate leaders who ruin companies, ruin shareholder value, and are getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars to mess it up. And so the say-on-pay resolutions are getting a huge amount of shareholder support his year, and I think it’s making a difference.