The supply of fresh summer fruit is about to be in abundance and before you know it, apples and pumpkins will abound. If you’re lucky and berries or stone fruits are providing a bountiful array of flavor, try this easy method of preserving them: whole fruit jam. This recipe relies on the natural sugars in […]
Older protocols are less relevant in this era of climate change and water stress. It's time to reconsider and revise how you assess risk.
If manufacturers build products meeting the most stringent certifications, it will hold more meaning for consumers at shelf.
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An abbreviated version of this piece was originally published in the summer issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 04: Better, Connected.
The Chinese government’s declarations of environmental concerns as first-order priorities have a spotty history in heralding imminent change, due largely to uneven enforcement on a state and local level. So one could be forgiven if the flurry of actions announced in the first half of 2014, which include statements by a government advisor that the country will set an absolute cap on carbon dioxide emissions for the first time and adopt a revised Environmental Protection Law (the first in 25 years) imposing harsher financial and criminal punishments to polluters, is viewed with scepticism. But stakeholder activity to hold the government accountable for their environmental stewardship, whether by protest or product offering, has risen too. We have seen more signs of environmentally-sparked protests, like one fought over the construction of an industrial plant in Guangdong province or another that incited a riot in Hangzhou over plans to build Asia’s largest waste incinerator project, take place this year.
Meanwhile, Chinese-based and multinational companies are betting on the growth of the anti-pollution market, regardless of what the government does or does not do. Among them, Unilever is buying a majority stake in a Chinese water purification company, while Alibaba is selling inexpensive water testing kits to help empower citizens. In a foreboding sign of things to come, Panasonic and Coca-Cola have announced that they will be paying ‘hazard pay’ to China-based employees to account for the country’s air pollution.
What to look for: Contrary to many reports, there has been no official announcement by China on an absolute emissions cap, nor what the cap would be if instituted. While this will continue to be the most significant international proxy for an inflection point (especially in advance of the critical Paris Climate Conference in 2015) we will be tracking further signals that Chinese and foreign companies develop and invest in anti-pollution products/services and how this activity, and the heightened awareness that comes with, helps further catalyse bottom-up environmental activism.
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It came to light recently that Facebook, in collaboration with some researchers at Cornell University, had conducted a research study on some of its users, manipulating what users saw in their news feeds in order to see if there was an appreciable impact on what those users themselves then posted. Would people who saw happy news then post happy stuff themselves? Or what? Outrage ensued. After all, Facebook had intentionally made (some) people feel (a little) sadder. And they did so without users’ express consent. The study had, in other words, violated two basic rules of ethics.
But I’m not so sure there was anything wrong with Facebook’s little experiment.
Two separate questions arise, here. One has to do with the ethics of the Cornell researchers, and whether Cornell’s ethics board should have been asked to approve the study and whether, in turn, they should have approved it. The other has to do with the ethics of Facebook as a company. But this is a blog about business ethics, so I’ll stick primarily to the question about Facebook. Was it wrong for Facebook to conduct this study?
With regard to Facebook’s conducting this study, two substantive ethical questions must be dealt with. One has to do with risk of harm. The other has to do with consent.
Let’s begin with the question of harm. The amount of harm done per person in this study was clearly trivial, perhaps literally negligible. Under most human-subjects research rules, studies that involve “minimal” risk (roughly: risks comparable to the risks of everyday life) are subject to only minimal review. Some scholars, however, have suggested a category of risk even lower than “minimal,” namely “de minimis” risk, which includes risks that are literally negligible and that hence don’t even require informed consent. This is a controversial proposal, and not all scholars will agree with it. Some will suggest that, even if the risk of harm is truly tiny, respect for human dignity requires that people be offered the opportunity to consent — or to decline to consent — to be part of the study.
So, what about the question of consent? It is a fundamental principle of research ethics that participants (“human subjects”) must consent to participate or to decline to participate, and their decision must be free and well-informed. But that norm was established to protect the interests of human volunteers (as well as paid research subjects). People in both of those categories are, by signing up to participate in a study, engaging in an activity that they would otherwise have no interest in participating in. Having someone shove a needle in your arm to test a cancer drug (or even having someone interview you about your sexual habits) is not something people normally do. We don’t normally have needles stuck in our arms unless we see some benefit for us (e.g., to prevent or cure some illness in ourselves). Research subjects are doing something out of the ordinary — subjecting themselves to some level of risk, just so that others may benefit from the knowledge generated — and so the idea is that they have a strong right to know what they’re getting themselves into. But the users of commercial products — such as Facebook — are in a different situation. They want to experience Facebook (with all its ups and downs), because they see it as bringing them benefits, benefits that outweigh whatever downsides come with the experience. Facebook, all jokes aside, is precisely unlike having an experimental drug injected into your arm.
The more general point is this: it is perfectly acceptable for a company to change its services in ways that might make people unhappy, or even in ways that is bound to make at least some of its users unhappy. And in fact Facebook would have never suffered criticism for doing so if it had simply never published the result. But the point here is not just that they could have got away with it if they had kept quiet. The point is that if they hadn’t published, there literally would have been no objection to make. Why, you ask?
If Facebook had simply manipulated users news feeds and kept the results to themselves, this process would likely have fallen under the heading of what is known, in research ethics circles, as “program evaluation.” Program evaluation is, roughly speaking, anything an organization does to gather data on its own activities, with an eye to understanding how well it is doing and how to improve its own workings. If, for example, a university professor like me alters some minor aspect of his course in order to determine whether it affected student happiness (perhaps as reflected in standard course evaluations), that would be just fine. It would be considered program evaluation and hence utterly exempt from the rules governing research ethics. But if that professor were to collect the data and analyze it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, it would then be called “research” and hence subject to those stricter rules, including review by an independent ethics board. But that’s because publication is the coin of the realm in the publish-or-perish world of academia. In academia, the drive to publish is so strong that — so the worry goes, and it is not an unsubstantiated worry — professors will expose unwitting research subjects to unreasonable risks, in pursuit of the all-important publication. That’s why the standard is higher for academic work that counts as research.
None of this — the fact that Facebook isn’t an academic entity, and that it was arguably conducting something like program evaluation — none of this implies that ethical standards don’t apply. No company has the right to subject people to serious unanticipated risks. But Facebook wasn’t doing that. The risks were small, and well within the range of ‘risks’ (can you even call them that?) experienced by Facebook’s users on a regular basis. This example illustrates nicely why there is a field called “business ethics” (and “research ethics” and “medical ethics,” and so on). While ethics is essential to the conduct of business, there’s no particular reason to think that ethics in business must be exactly the same as ethics in other realms. And the behaviour of Facebook in this case was entirely consistent with the demands of business ethics.
Ginger is a spice perfect for any time of year. Its fragrance can perk up everything from chai tea to apple pie. This humble root can also add a gentle kick of heat to stir fries or soups. The natural yeasts in the root can also be used to kick start a bubbly ginger beer. […]
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The identification and engagement of a company’s stakeholders to build trust, reduce risk and develop effective partnerships have been at the core of our work with business leaders for many years. As the rhetoric grows that no singular business is capable of addressing environmental and social challenges alone, companies must think now more than ever about how they can engage with NGOs, governments and other actors to develop collaborative solutions to system problems.
Over the years, we have seen stakeholder engagement move in this direction. It’s evolved from tactical, compliance and risk-focused to more strategic and solutions-orientated, with stakeholders engaged up and down the value chain—not only as partners on critical issues but also as key players to improve business performance.
In our most recent issue of Radar, we sought to explore the essential attributes for effective and innovative engagement and have identified five key success factors.
The right intent. Focus on a goal for the company and for society, not on engaging for engagement’s sake. Ultimately, the intent should focus on aligning engagements with the achievement of core business goals, to arrive at a clear and desired outcome. For example, one of Walmart’s ambitions is to ensure all US customers have access to recycling facilities. This ambition is not achievable by the company on its own so it is looking to partnerships, using its ambition to drive a number of engagements through the creation of the Closed Loop Fund.
The right stakeholders. Involve the right people both inside and outside the company. While this may seem obvious, it is important to highlight as it is fundamental that companies select both the right external and internal stakeholders. When assessing which internal stakeholders to involve, the intent of the engagement and each employee’s capabilities should be top of mind. Essential, too, is senior level support to ensure that stakeholders believe the engagement is being taken seriously. External stakeholders should include influential representatives who are willing to engage and also those who can help achieve the goal, such as solution providers and experts or business partners from across the value chain. Nestlé has steadily built a public affairs department focused on and capable of earning stakeholder trust. Further to this team, Nestlé’s Chairman regularly attends the company’s Creating Shared Value convening to ensure he understands the concerns of both supporters and critics to help drive company strategy.
The right issues. Concentrate on where the company can make a difference and the issues that make most difference to the company. While the ‘intent’ of the engagement will shape the outcomes, the issues addressed should focus on a ‘big idea’ or the most material issues. Engaging is timely and costly, and companies should ensure that they are pursuing engagements that will yield the most benefits. By focusing on a big idea or material issue, companies can use collective brainpower to better solve problems and create solutions. For example, Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniels and other high profile alcohol brands, brought together makers, distributors and retailers to combat irresponsible consumption of alcohol as part of its Global Guide to Alcohol Responsibility.
The right spirit. Be open to challenges and different perspectives. Companies should approach engagements with an understanding of open, two-way communication, encouraging challenging and different perspectives. Top management should champion active listening. In addition to listening, how feedback is used and disclosed is crucial as well. TD Bank incorporates specific recommendations and their response into their annual report as a means of proving that they’ve understood and are addressing stakeholder concerns.
The right processes. Ensure processes are targeted and appropriate to the business. Depending on the intent and the issues being addressed, there are a number of internal processes and tools at a company’s disposal to ensure the successful completion of any stakeholder engagement. These processes include a clearly defined governance mechanism; highlighting who has ownership for the engagement; clarity around the format of the engagement, from tracking communications to long-term partnerships, and potential KPIs to measure the success of the engagement. All of these elements are specific to the situation and the way a company pursues innovation.
While there is an element of surprise to be expected in any engagement, focusing on these key attributes will ensure the continued progression towards achieving corporate ambitions, while also providing the most value for participating stakeholders.
We hope you enjoy the summer issue of Radar. As always, we welcome your feedback.
Please note that Radar is an interactive digital publication and as such not all of the interactive features will work in the PDF version of the magazine.