WHAT IS DRIVING SAFETY AND HEALTH EFFORTS IN THE WORKPLACE?
For 30 years OSHA regulators tried to whip industry into shape with a steady stream of safety and health standards. Don't have to tell you that the spigot's been turned off, except for the occasional drip (modified recordkeeping rules and so on.)
This edition of ISHN's e-newsletter examines who or what is pressuring companies to do the right thing in the post-OSHA age.
BIG BUSINESS BEWARE
One caveat up-front:
It's going to be mostly the big-time companies that employ full-time, college-degreed environmental health and safety professionals who will feel the heat (or already have) from the new kind of pressures. Pressures forcing responsible safety and health corporate behavior, values, culture - call it what you want.
Small businesses - contractors, metalworking shops, repair shops, warehouses, and so on - are mostly off the safety and health responsibility radar screen. Unless they screw up badly, injuring workers or blowing up a tank or pipeline that it grabs the local newspaper's attention.
But when was the last time you read an expose in your local paper about a local company injuring workers or putting them at risk?
Maybe if there is a union struggle going on at the company and word leaks out. Or OSHA has already come and issued citations.
But proactive investigative reporting on workplace safety hazards? Forget it. You are more likely to read about how workers are mistreated in toy plants or on banana farms half-way around the world than what goes on in a paint spraying shop down the street.
Why is that?
BRANDS ARE TARGETS
Blame it on branding. In today's competitive, global business arena, brands carry the day - or else your product is a commodity.
Enterprising America is excelling at exporting brand-name merchandise. That's why you see kids in Africa and Japan wearing Nike shirts. Why an athlete like basketball player Allen Iverson is a brand unto himself - A.I.
And when a well-known brand name company acts irresponsibly - say a toy, apparel or food company is accused of exploiting teenage working girls - it can send ripples of outrage through a world-wide web (pun intended) of interconnected groups.
Idealistic college students don't want their school sweatshirts made in sweatshops. (After all, what does that say about you and your choice of a college?)
Investors don't want to lose money in a company whose reputation (and sales) are taking a hit.
Editors and reporters want to go after the bigger-they-are, harder-they-fall stories because it is front page stuff. And because everyone is familiar with the brand name companies.
Here's another force to reckon with: Baby boomer consumers might want to hold on to some of their own old ideals and not buy from scandalous, polluting, or otherwise irresponsible suppliers. (After all, what does that say about your own values?)
Plus, rapidly-multiplying non-government organizations (NGOs) are on the prowl for globalized exploitation. And they are ready to use the Internet, the media, and feelings of guilt and shame - if not outrage - on the part of the public to hit businesses where it hurts the most - hammering blows to their brand images, their reputations, their sales, their retail partners, and their stock prices.
Joe's Machine Shop down the street doesn't have to worry about this new, global network of de-facto environmental safety and health watchdogs. But the big boys do. That's why you see corporate image ads in the news weeklies from the likes of Toyota and British Petroleum (or "Beyond Petroleum" as the company tags itself) boasting of what they are doing to protect the planet.
Where are the ads about protecting the workers? In the eyes of corporate image makers and reputation managers, protecting the Rain Forest tops protecting employees.
Why? Mother Earth is seen as more vulnerable than Blue-collar Joe. In American culture, Joe can take care of himself.
CORPORATE BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION
Here's how the scope of NGOs dwarfs OSHA's meager army of inspectors:
In the year 2000, there were 154,112 NGOs listed in the Yearbook of International Organizations, Union of International Associations.
Interestingly, there are more than 73,000 NGOs in Europe, compared to only - only - 27,000 in the Americas. Imagine OSHA with 27,000 inspectors instead of its current 2,200.
NGOs are not the tree-huggers and sit-down artists you might think they are. They have become much more business-minded. Bold as always, they are ready to take on governments and regulators who kow-tow to big businesses, as well as companies and entire industries.
Their strategy for motivating more responsible corporate behavior, if you want to call it that, is not limited to placards and protests marches. These groups talk about "taking companies down" by:
- Threatening the loss of future markets
- Finding the weak link in the supply chain, usually the consumer retail outlets (Wal-Mart and Home Depot store managers don't want reporters and TV cameras in their parking lots covering protesters railing against the lumber or clothing supplier who exploits third-world economies)
- Attacking brand reputations
- Launching anti-corporate campaigns that target brands, customers, investors, and the supply chain
It's all about money. Attacking the bottom line. How to hurt earnings, analysts' ratings, and stock prices.
THE NEW REGULATORS
Who are these new-fangled NGOs?
Many aren't new at all. They are your old grassroots enviro groups grown up now and stocked with MBAers, not bomb throwers.
Greenpeace. The Sierra Club (who's adding a workplace environmental health committee and technical advisor to staff). The Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network. The Workers' Rights Consortium. Farm Safety for Just Kids. The FIGHT Project. The Alliance for Workers Rights. The Farmworkers Justice Fund. The New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (part of a national COSH network of 23 similar non-profit safety and health training and advocacy organizations, located in 17 states.)
Think about the definition of a non-governmental organization. It can include the International Labor Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the American National Standards Institute. You might not think of them as adversaries, but they can set standards, though voluntary, that can be hard to ignore from a liability perspective.
Today, NGOs address every conceivable issue, certainly including environmental health and safety.
They operate in communities, states, countries, regions of the world, or globally. Goals and methods vary widely. From noisy protests, name and shame campaigns, to conducting detailed policy analyses, setting standards, and holding global conferences.
Their budgets can be in the tens of millions of dollars, or a couple hundred or thousand bucks. Money comes from public grants and private foundations, fee for services, membership dues, profits from sales of products (think Sierra Club calendars), wealthy patrons, corporations, and government assistance programs.
OUCH! FEELING THE STING
Who has felt the sting of these groups and their tactics?
Industries such as these: Forest products, Pharmaceuticals, Mining, Oil, Computer firms, Footwear, Transportation equipment manufacturers, Apparel makers, Toy makers, Tobacco companies, Nuclear power, Chemical companies, and Coffee makers.
Notice any common themes? Most all are responsible to (and marketing to) the consuming public. And most all are multinationals vulnerable to third-world exploitation charges.
Here are some specific companies that have taken hits: Wal-Mart (child labor); Starbucks (exploiting small farmers); McDonalds (humane treatment of hens); DeBeers (gems sold to warring factions in Africa).
Also: Walt Disney, JC Penney, K-Mart, Liz Clairborne, Gap, Inc., Levi Strauss, Nike, Reebok, Home Depot, Lowe's Home Improvement, IKEA, Georgia-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, International Paper, Shell, Coca-Cola, Suncor, Monsanto, and Mattel.
These names are familiar to almost any reader. The bigger they are, the more popular the brand, the harder they fall. . .
ECONOMICS REPLACES REGULATION
Here is another example of how economics has (or is in the process of) replacing regulation as the primary driver of responsible corporate behavior. It's called socially responsible investing (SRI).
Socially responsible mutual funds have been offered for more than 30 years, mostly as fringe alternatives for radical investors living on communes. But that was then, now is definitely a different time.
In 1995, assets in socially screened funds and separate accounts amounted to little more than $160 billion. According to a report released by the Social Investment Forum, socially screened assets have passed the $2 trillion mark and now represent one in every eight dollars under management.
The notion that socially screened portfolios produced inferior returns all but disappeared in the late 1990s when Big Tobacco's hundred-billion-dollar lawsuit, Nike's Asian labor woes and Monsanto's genetically engineered food fallout gave new ammo to social investors' argument that their screens weed out risky companies.
How do these screens or filters work? Every fund uses a different combination. The Calvert Group Social Investment Fund, for example uses these:
ALCOHOL- NO INVESTMENT
TOBACCO- NO INVESTMENT
GAMBLING- NO INVESTMENT
DEFENSE/WEAPONS- NO INVESTMENT
ANIMAL TESTING- any investment in animal testing requires that the company reduce use of animal testing, ensure humane treatment of animals, actively research alternatives
PRODUCTS/SERVICES- seeks to invest in safe, beneficial products
ENVIRONMENT- NO INVESTMENT in major polluters, violators of environmental laws, nuclear power; seeks pollution prevention and resource conservation programs, environmentally sustainable business practices
HUMAN RIGHTS- NO INVESTMENT in business operations that support oppressive regimes; seeks codes of conduct or other evidence of strong commitment to human rights
LABOR RELATIONS- NO INVESTMENT aggressive anti-union activity, unsafe working conditions, or discriminatory practices; seeks strong labor relations policies (whether union or non-union), safe and healthful working conditions
EMPLOYMENT/EQUALITY- seeks strong diversity programs, non-discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, age, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, employee participation in defining and achieving the companies' goals
COMMUNITY INVESTMENT- 1% to direct support of community-based organizations
COMMUNITY RELATIONS- seeks good corporate citizens, exceptional commitment to community affairs and charitable giving
Add up these screens and you have one definition of corporate responsibility.
THE CORPORATE COMEBACK
So how are companies responding to these new pressures for accountability and responsibility?
Of course every company has its own culture and values and strategy.
In the next edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we will look at sustainability, a business buzzword making the rounds these days. It is about operating a business in a manner that is responsible to economic, environmental, and social issues.
But is it a true modern management philosophy, or a smokescreen?
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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