True story: I received a call from Monsanto UK's head of Corporate Affairs yesterday in response to my op-ed in Ethical Corporation. I had mentioned Monsanto's placement at #581 (read: dead last) on one ranking and #31 on another in the same year, as an example of how useless ethical indices and CSR rankings have become.
We had a productive and intriguing dialogue which covered the following issues:
CSR rankings and ethical indices
-Monsanto argued that coal and oil companies should remain on ethical indices, as there are ways to generate those products in 'less worse' ways and we should reward those companies who are making improvements.
-I argued they should in fact not remain, for two reasons. Firstly, I can't think of any companies who are actually making impactful progress towards being 'less worse'. If anything, these companies are showing us right now that they have no intention to become 'less worse' in their responses to the BP disaster. Secondly, the extraordinarily small window of time we have to scale up renewable energy solutions means we can't give these oil companies the benefit of the doubt that they will become 'less worse'. It also means incremental innovations--that is, improvements towards being 'less worse'--ain't gonna cut it to drive an energy revolution. We need transformational solutions.
Monsanto's CSR approach
-Monsanto pointed out their CSR reporting objective is to reach out to their stakeholders, and that they have strict policies in place which guide their CSR strategy and are communicated through their CSR reporting. He also called attention to the positive impact Monsanto has on raising quality of life in developing countries, especially India.
-I discussed the need for Monsanto to change three things about its CSR communications approach.
Firstly, they need to engage in the debate over the future of the world’s food supply. For an agribusiness giant that controls the vast majority of the world's seeds, participating in this debate is not an option. It's about managing risk in their business and educating consumers about where their food comes from. After all, if Monsanto doesn't, projects like Food Inc will--and are.
Secondly, they need to be more transparent with the data available regarding their social, economic and environmental impact throughout their global supply chain. This transparency will feed into engagement in aforementioned debate and is also quickly going to become necessary due to regulatory and digital pressures. Any company can talk about its official policies all they want, but until I see the data, I'm not convinced. A policy is a policy--at the end of the day, the ways in which it is implemented are what counts.
Finally, for a company as huge as Monsanto, CSR reporting must be all about communicating the trade-offs. By tradeoffs, I mean raising quality of life in India vs. emissions from growing Monsanto's business. By trade-offs, I mean the economic benefits to shareholders of growing Monsanto's business vs. social impacts of investigating and suing small farmers on a case-by-case basis to ensure Monsanto's products are being used correctly.
Again, an interesting conversation which I hope to continue in the future.