The King and the Peasant

It’s been very reassuring that Corporate Sustainable Performance and Social Responsible Investing has really taken off. You cannot get through a day that you see an article, conference, product, consulting pitch promoting the values of values driven business. Nearly all-major banks have or will have sustainable investment products or research departments, within 12 months. However, every now and again you come across a situation where companies completely, totally and blatantly show how ignorant they are about this critical subject, while verbally embracing everything about sustainability. My tolerance level for this group was stretched to capacity at the “gala dinner” during the conference on Corporate Social Responsibility, at the Palais Egmont in Brussels on November 27th.

I had experienced an entire day of workshops and speeches about corporate social responsibility. Following that, the entire audience (nearly 800) was herded through the streets of Brussels to a cocktail party at City Hall. It was very nice, chic, civilized and good networking. Following, this social event, the remaining group was taken by bus to Palais Egmont, which is beautiful palace. Here, we would be treated to more speeches and a “ gala dinner”. This should have been a nice way to end an exhausting day. Instead of drinks and wonderful food, we were forced to listen to 5 poor speeches by Viscount Davignon (President CSR Europe), Jean-François Théodore (CEO Euronext), Daniel Lebègue (Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations) and Lee Canon (European Commission), and Ann Nils in the place Johan vande Lanotte (Belgian Minister). I felt like a goose prior to Christmas, whose stomach was being forced fed with corn via a funnel. Exhausted and thirsty, we had to endure stories of people supposedly committed to CSR.

The idea of transparency, inclusion, cooperation, human values, sharing, modern, egalitarianism, generosity, non-aristocratic, supportive, regeneration, etc. all seemed to be absent by this “royal company’s” actions. At a certain moment, the Viscount reprimanded us for not paying attention enough to the “speeches” and we were no longer served something to drink. We were to be an audience to the king and had to listen to his “show”. I thought, ok. The suffering will last a little while longer. Then, we could sit down and interact the speakers and exchange ideas. Nothing was further from the truth. As soon as the “VIPs” finished their talk, they were hustled into a private royal suite, and the doors were closed. There, they received special the attention that the king was accustomed to receiving, with special waiters, tables, and catering. We, the peasants, were left standing awkwardly with our food, and no opportunity to react, interact, criticize or speak to the king’s.

THIS IS NOT WHAT CSR IS ABOUT. At first, I thought it was a cultural problem, but even my colleagues from southern and northern Europe felt this was an insult to why everyone came. We were trying to learn, inspire, and exchange ideas to speed up the process of institutionalizing CSR in business. We have, I hoped, moved on from the aristocracy of business and government, having cleaned up the last group of non-ethical EU commissioners in the process. These throw backs to a period that has nothing to do with where business is going. It is about from where business is coming.

The King had his audience; the peasants were allowed to experience briefly the royal entourage. Unfortunately, no one benefited. The kings didn’t increase their popularity, attract new members, learn, or inspire the audience. As Peggy Lee said, “Is that all there is?” I was left with emptiness, physically, spiritual and emotional. This mediaeval, aristocratic, (us and them) exclusionary approach to business still exists; at least in the minds of some. The King needs to hear more critical feedback or he will continuously make these horrific mistakes.  Fortunately, it is breathing its last breath, and corporate social responsibility is taking root as a clear obvious alternative. Fireworks always burn brightest, before it extinguishes.

The King is seriously ill, long live the peasants.

After 25 years nothing has changes.
Robert R


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