Corporate Responsibility – Sustainability – Citizenship: Is It In Jeopardy in the Trump-ian Years? Don’t Think So!

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute
April 17, 2017

The mid-1960s….the time of the wonderful beginnings of the modern era of Corporate Social Responsibility. Corporate Citizenship.  And then large corporations began backing off their prior commitments as new administrations came to power in Washington.

The relationship of large corporations to the general society (i.e., the rest of us) has long been of interest to me. My career has been an exciting journey through up and down cycles of clear demonstration of corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, environmental responsibility, by large corporations…and at times, and at times, a clear lack thereof.

The news has mostly been very positive for the past two decades about CSR and sustainability — and corporate citizenship. Will this continue in the months and years ahead?

This of course is a question on the minds of some as the Trump Administration and the Congress continue to at least verbally assault the New Era of Enlightenment of the corporate sector.

Corporate-Society relations — this is something I closely monitor and am involved with daily in our Governance & Accountability Institute work, of course. And the progress made, or at times lack of progress, is a subject area that I have often commented on in my writings over the years since the 1960s.

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Consider:  U.S.A. – Industrial Powerhouse of the Postwar Era

The publisher of Time magazine (Henry Luce) commented that the 20th was the “American Century,” in great measure thanks to the fantastic production of the United States corporate community.

The nature of the post-World War II economy was firmly set in place by the production prowess of the war years (1941-1945), when the United States of America was the “Arsenal of Democracy,” with fantastic output of weapons and war materiel by large companies. (Ford Motor stopped making cars and instead made B-24 bombers; General Motors turned out tanks, with innovative transmissions that became best-selling features on post-war autos, etc.)

The rapid military buildup helped to lift large U.S. manufacturers and their tens of thousands of workers out of the dark days of the Great Depression era and into renewed prosperity. A “military-industrial” complex thus arose that continued through the decades onward to today. The great American middle class was set firmly in place after the war and the world’s greatest consuming economy was created in catering to the needs and wants of the population.

Because American and British bombers had devastated the factories of Germany and in other European countries, and American bombers the manufacturing facilities of the Empire of Japan, the U.S.A. dominated postwar [world] trade, for many years accounting for fully half of global trade flows.

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Civil Rights in Focus

Despite the broad and inspiring progress made in uplifting American families to middle class status, not all “boats rose” on the rising tide of progress.  The benefits of Corporate America were not evenly enjoyed.

The relationship of the corporate sector, and of the public sector, and the nation’s African-American population, was over the years problematic. There was discrimination in hiring, in training, in promotion, in access to goods and services; the African-American community steadily lagged behind white peer groups.

The sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by The Voting Rights Act of 1965, set in place public sector commitments to change things, to open up opportunities in employment, in access to college education, to affordable home mortgages, and more.

Of course, not all American citizens welcomed the changes; particularly in the American South, there was pushback and protests and defiance of Federal anti-discrimination laws. (Including the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Ed, which seemed to assure equal education for all citizens.)

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The Rise of Civil Unrest in the 1960s

With rising civil unrest in the inner cities, filling with African-Americans in the Great Migration north, there were riots in 1963 and 1964 in Birmingham and Savannah; in Chicago and Philadelphia; with both whites and blacks involved, battling each other, and more often battling police.

In 1965, there were riots in Los Angeles (the “Watts” neighborhood), 4,000 people were arrested, 34 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and tens of millions of dollars of property damage resulted.

The year 1966 brought unrest to Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland (“Hough” neighborhood) — 43 disorders in the U.S. in all. More people died; the National Guard was mobilized; more protests were in store for the next year. And in Spring into Summer 1967, there were riots in Tampa, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Newark and Northern New Jersey, and Detroit.

The Report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (issued March 8, 1968) noted: The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them, shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. The worst came during a 2-week period in July, first in Newark (N.J.) and then in Detroit.

Said the authors. this is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.

Reaction to the disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. (end quotes).

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An important irritant: the increased involvement in the war between North and South Viet Nam — a conflict in which young men of privilege (attending Ivy League schools, for example) could skip military service while a high proportion of African-Americans would be drafted and shipped to the war zone.

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Corporate Sector Response

After passage of civil rights legislation, companies doing business with the Federal government were required to meet certain requirements; state and local governments had to come in line with affirmative action (such as set-asides in hiring for members of minority communities).

As the rules-of-the-road of the Federal civil rights statutes were set in place, both government agencies and America’s largest employers began to change their strategies, practices and policies to match the law of the land. This was not always easy — and certainly was not met with universal acceptance in many quarters of our population.

As the corporate community adjusted, G.A. Lloyd, a respected director public affairs/ community affairs manager at Humble Oil and Refining Company became an active public speaker on the changes taking place.

He wrote a small booklet: The Human Side of History (published 1967 – 16 pages) to help to educate his corporate community colleagues in the business sector on the changes taking place. He delivered a delivered powerful speech at University of Houston and around the Southwest, in late-December 1967, a time when I had been appointed as the “citizenship officer” of my employer, American Airlines (so I was paying close attention).

The Great Progress Made in the Private Sector

Mr. Lloyd advised us that “…leadership socially-conscious companies business organizations” such as those encouraged in the day’s electric utility industry association) were striving to make a difference. (Was this the beginning of modern-day “corporate social responsibility”? Perhaps.)

The corporate functions involved included public relations, community affairs/ community relations and philanthropy.

His employer — Humble Oil Company – in November 1967 was reacting very positively to key government action: passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act

The chairman of the board of his company, M.A. Wright, in October 1967 said: “The business community’s involvement with social problems must take a new look. In the search for solutions, they must bring into play their leadership and analytical capabilities. They must devise new and better approaches to existing public programs. Businessmen have no practical choice but to insist social problems be given the same analytical treatment that business uses in solving its own problems. ”

There were three outstanding business attributes and resources to bring to bear, the common wisdom told us: the three E’s of education, employment, environment.

G.A. Lloyd was busily telling business and academic audiences, “poor youths” were being put to work in the NASA Manned Space Center in Houston, Texas; 187 youths were recruited, paid a wage and provided training (“learning skills” was important).

Note the accepted language of the day: They were “economically-deprived boys and girls” from families of “the hard core unemployed,” and the objective was to keep them from falling into poverty as they grew up. They learned to type, run duplicating machines, operate machinery, and learn about electronic equipment.

The community-based programs that they were recruited from included: Job Fair; Junior Student Trainee Program; Job Opportunities for Youth (“JOY”); Vocational Education Program; and Back to School Youth Opportunity Campaign. Buses picked the students up, brought them to work and back home.

By the year 1967, Lloyd informed us, some 348 U.S. insurance companies had agreed to invest $1 billion to upgrade U.S. “slums” (concentrated primarily in major U.S. cities).

And more good news:

U.S. Gypsum (building materials) bought or optioned tenement buildings in Harlem and a handful in Cleveland to rehabilitate.

Smith, Kline & French (the Philadelphia pharma) rehabbed buildings in its neighborhood and sold them to the local housing authority.

Hallmark Cards in its home city of Kansas City planned over the next 16 years (that would be to 1983) to invest more than $100 million in rehabbing a “run-down” 85-acre area.

Polaroid (then based Cambridge, Massachusetts) established a “job clearing house” and invited colleagues in from more than 700 Boston-region firms to hire “underprivileged Negros” sans high school diplomas to earn that diploma on company time and expense. Companies responding supplied interviewers at the clearinghouse.

Met Life in New York City was recruiting new employees through The Urban League and social service organizations and put them through a 13-week training course. This process includes a “culture fair test” (no details provided).

Pacific Bell & Telephone dispatched African-American and Spanish-speaking recruiters out to barber shops, pool halls, beauty parlors and “where ever people meet” to identify potential new employees. Those selected were given training to develop skills; 18 of the first 20 men and 21 of the first 22 women became full-time employees.

Jobs Now (operating in Chicago) helped street gang members and those with minor criminal offenses to get local employers to look at candidates that had been on the straight-and-narrow for at least six months. High school diplomas were waived.

For his company, Humble Oil, applicants with low math and “chemical comprehension” (knowledge) were provided with lower entrance qualification testing and given training. (“They were educationally-deprived,” he noted. (In those days before self-service at gas stations the company was training minority men for jobs as service station driveway salesmen at the pump in Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; and Los Angeles, working with local job development agencies.)

What did all of this mean for the people and communities involved?

  • They got a job – and a salary. And were trained.
    Dignity and self-respect was restored.
    They were able to buy an affordable home. With an affordable mortgage.
    There were less people on the welfare rolls.
    More minority youth were able to attend college. And become professionals.
    There was less potential for civil unrest – the riots of recent past years.
    Neighborhoods could be rehabilitated.
    It was good for business — especial for the private sector.  Major companies and small businesses would prosper.
    Entrepreneurial businesses gained a good foothold.
    These were optimum results at minimum cost, as some experts observed.

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Hedley Donovan, Editor-in-Chief of Time magazine and one of the most influential of American journalists, observed that it was good business to apply the same creative radicalism used to create good, and sometimes great, products, into create “good” and “great cities.”

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Importantly, a manager of public relations at giant DuPont (one of the dominant industrial firms of the era), advised that a major objective of American business should be “public service,” not just pursuit of profit. That is, public service through new or better products for the benefit of humankind…the objective is “just making money” was not sufficient, in his view.

Even in those faraway days there were many men (mostly men) who had stopped looking for work and too much unemployment concentrated in minority communities.  American corporations tried to do their part to change this situation.

This was all good news, of course, but there were changes in the wind.

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As a long-time student of the Corporate-Society Dynamic, I have concerns that with the election results of November 2016, there might be backsliding in the efforts of Corporate America to be “better citizens,” and to continue to “do well by doing good” in terms of benefiting the American and global societies.

We shall see. The early signs are very encouraging. So far, this is not a revival of the actions of Richard Nixon presidency. Even though then-President Nixon encouraged adoption of the Federal Environmental Act and created the US EPA, his dog whistles to the business community helped to bring about an end to much of the above described good works of many major companies.

With the rise of right-leaning political leadership, the era of “Neutron Jack” Welch at General Electric would become the model for other CEOs. Slash and burn, chop away at R&D budgets, get rid of people, concentrate on profits and not people.  And please Wall Street. Not the many Main Streets of America.

Good news:  We have not yet seen a repeat of the rhetoric of Professor Milton Friedman as he so eloquently stated in The New York Times Magazine of September 13, 1970: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. (You can read that essay here: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html)

In case you have not read the piece, the summation of the essay was: “…the doctrine of ‘social responsibility‘ taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collectivist doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means. That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a ‘fundamentally subversive doctrine’ in a free society, and have said that in such a society, ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.’ ”

We have come a long, long way from those positions as stated by a respected academician of his time. This is so very long ago in today’s corporate rhetoric on corporate citizenship.

What will the future hold? We’re closely watching the Trump Administration and the Congress to hear the dog whistles and see the signals perhaps being quietly sent to the business and investing communities.

With all the progress being made by “universal owners” (the all-important independent fiduciaries of our time), and wide-awake NGOs and other key stakeholders, I don’t think we’ll have a Nixon-ian and Ronald Reagan type of backsliding. Not just yet. That’s the good news.

Your thoughts?

Dangerous Antics – Fiddling with the Future of US EPA and the Health and Safety of the American People

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

The Trump Administration  — Making moves now on the US EPA to destroy its effectiveness through budget cuts and ideological attacks on its missions.

In his landmark work published in 1993 – “A Fierce Green Fire – The American Environment Movement” – former New York Times journalist Philip Shabecoff explained:  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by President Richard Nixon (a Republican) in December 1970 (two years into his first term) as part of an overall re-organization of the Federal government. The EPA was created without any benefit of statute by the U.S. Congress.

Parts of programs, departments and regulations were pulled from 15 different areas of the government and cobbled together a single environmental protection agency intended to be the watchdog, police officer and chief weapon against all forms of pollution, author Schabecoff explained to us.

The EPA quickly became the lightning rod for the nation’s hopes for cleaning up pollution and fears about intrusive Federal regulation.

As the first EPA Administrator, William Ruckelshaus (appointed by Richard Nixon) explained to the author in 1989: “The normal condition of the EPA was to be ground between two irresistible forces: the environmental movement, pushing very hard to get [pollution] emissions no matter where they were (air, water)…and another group on the side of industry pushing just as hard and trying to stop all of that stuff…” Both, Ruckelshaus pointed out, regardless of the seriousness of the problem.

We are a half-century and more beyond all of this back and forth, and the arguments about EPA’s role and importance rage on.

Today we in the sustainability movement are alarmed at the recklessness of the Trump White House and the key Administration officials now charged with responsibility to protect the environment and public health in two key cabinet departments: The EPA and the Department of Energy.

The ripple effects of the attacks on climate change science are in reality much larger: The Department of Defense (which has declared climate change to be a major threat long-term); the Department of Interior, overseeing the nation’s precious legacy of national parks and more; the Department of Agriculture (and oversight of tens of millions of acres of farmland); the Department of Commerce; the Department of Justice..and on and on.

The destruction could start early: The Washington Post (with its ear to the ground) is closely watching the administration and reported on February 17th that President Donald Trump planned to target the EPA with new Executive Orders (between two and five are coming) that would restrict the Agency’s oversight role and reverse some of the key actions that comprise the Obama Administration legacy on climate change and related issues.

Such as: rolling back the Clean Energy Plan (designed to limit power plant GhG emissions), which required states to develop their own plan as well. And, withdrawing from the critical agreement reached in Paris at COP 21 to limit the heating up of Planet Earth (which most of the other nations of the world have also adopted, notably China and India).

The destroyers now at the helm of the EPA also don’t like the Agency’s role in protecting wetlands, rivers etc. (The Post was expanding on coverage originally developed by investigative reporters at Mother Jones.)

Mother Jones quoted an official of the Trump transition team: “What I would like to see are executive orders implementing all of President Trump’s main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty.”

And, in the Washington Post/Mother Jones reportage: “The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the Agency’s ‘so-called endangerment finding,’ which states that GhG emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated [by EPA] under the Clean Air Act.”

Think about this statement by H. Sterling Burnett of the right-wing Heartland Institute: “I read the Constitution of the United States and the word ‘environmental protection’ does not appear there.” He cheered the early actions by the Trump-ians to give the green light to the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Project.

On March 1st The Washington Post told us that the White House will cut the EPA staff by one-fifth — and eliminate dozens of programs.

A document obtained by the Post revealed that the cuts would help to offset the planned increase in military spending. Cutting the EPA budget from US$ 8.2 billion to $6.1 billion could have a significant [negative] impact on the Agency.

We should remember that in his hectic, frenetic campaigning, Donald Trump-the-candidate vowed to get rid of EPA in almost every present form – and his appointee, now EPA Administrator (Scott Pruitt) sued EPA over and over again when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, challenging its authority to regulate mercury pollution, smog (fog/smoke), an power plant carbon emissions (the heart of the Obama Clean Energy Plan).

In practical terms, the Post explained, the massive Chesapeake Bay clean up project, now funded at $73 million, would be getting $5 million in the coming Fiscal Year (October 1st on). Three dozen programs would be eliminated (radon; grants to states; climate change initiatives; aid to Alaskan native villages); and the “U.S. Global Change Research Program” created by President George H.W. Bush back in 1989 would be gone.

Important elements of the American Society have tackled conservation, environmental, sustainability and related issues to reduce harm to human health and our physical home – Mother Earth – over the past five decades: Federal and state and local governments; NGOs; industry; investors; ordinary citizens; academia.

Today, the progress in protecting our nation’s resources and human health made since rivers caught fire and the atmosphere of our cities and towns could be seen and smelled, is under attack.

The good news is that for the most part, absent some elements of society, the alarms bells are going off and people are mobilizing to progress, not retreat, on environmental protection issues.

American Industry – Legacy of Three Decade Commitment to Environmental Protection – The Commitment Must Continue

The good news to look back on and then to project down to the 21st Century and Year 2017 includes  the comments by leaders of the largest chemical industry player of the day as the EPA was launched and key initial legislation passed (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and many more)  – that is the DuPont deNemours Company.

Think about the importance of these critical arguments – which could be considered as foundational aspirations for today’s corporate sustainability movement:

Former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro told author Philip Shabecoff: “You’ve have to be dumb and deaf not to recognize the public gives a damn about the environment and a business man who ignores it writes his out death warrant.”

The fact is, said CEO Shapiro (who was a lawyer), “DuPont has not been disadvantaged by the environmental laws. It is a stronger company today (in the early 1990s) than it was 25 years ago. Where the environment is on the public agenda depends on the public. If the public loses interest, corporate involvement will diminish…”

His predecessor as CEO, E. S. Woolard, had observed in 1989: “Environmentalism is now a mode of operation for every sector of society, industry included. We in industry have to develop a stronger awareness of ourselves as environmentalists…”

And:  remember, warned Dupont CEO Shapiro: “…if the public loses interest corporate involvement will diminish…”

Today let’s also consider the shared wisdom of a past administrator as she contemplated the news of the Trump Administration actions and intentions:

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (2013-2017) said to the Post: “The [proposed] budget is a fantasy if the Trump Administration believes it will preserve EPA’s mission to protect public health. It ignores the need to invest in science and to implement the law. It ignores the history that led to the EPA’s creation 46 years ago. It ignores the American People calling for its continued support.”

Consider the DuPont’ CEO’s comments above … if the American public loses interest.  At this time in our nation’s history, we must be diligent and in the streets (literally and metaphorically) protesting the moves of this administration and the connivance of the U.S. Congress if our representatives go along with EPA budget cuts as outlined to date.

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About “A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement,” by Philip Shabecoff; published 1993 by Harper Collins. I recommend a reading to gain a more complete understanding of the foundations of the environmental movement.

A decade ago I wrote a commentary on the 100-year evolvement of the conservation movement into the environmental movement and then on to today’s sustainability movement in my Corporate Finance Review column.  It’s still an interesting read:  http://www.hankboerner.com/library/Corporate%20Finance%20Review/Popular%20Movements%20-%20A%20Challenge%20for%20Institutions%20and%20Managers%2003&04-2005.pdf