Fair fashion: a personal exploration

Hopefully some of you can relate to this situation. When you find the perfect dress (or jacket, skirt, etc), but then before paying at the counter you think you should also really ask the staff if they can tell you anything about the brand’s CSR policy or about local production circumstances. I.e. does the brand you are intending to buy from operate responsibly? Of course, the staff doesn’t know. I’ve never actually had an answer that made sense when asking this question.

So what do you do? Put back the gorgeous dress because you don’t know how the brand does business, or do you buy it anyway (thereby negating any impact your question might have made: clearly you don’t care at all)?

Yes, sometimes these are the questions that I go shopping with. (And yes, I’m good at making my life difficult)

Of course, when talking about international CSR policies of companies in the Netherlands, you quickly hit the textile industry where this has been a major issue this past year, spurred on by the incidents in Bangladesh. The collective industry has come out with an action plan with the objective to drastically improve the supply chain of Dutch companies in this sector.

Increasing transparency

But another thing that is related to this is being transparent about what a company does, and what its supply chain looks like: what do brands show and say about their business operations? I believe that increased transparency will help a lot in encouraging responsible business practices. If a consumer can tell where the clothing he or she is planning to buy has been produced and how, this can (hopefully) influence someone to buy the better product (though, of course, there will be many a dilemma like the one mentioned above). I’ll soon share a project I’m working on with CHFC that aims to contribute to increasing that transparency.

Where to find information?

But in the meantime: I want to know where the things I wear are made, and how. There are different websites where you can find fair fashion brands (such as here or here) which helps of course. But what about the brands I already wear? And sadly, I can’t really find reliable information on those on, for example, GoedeWaar or Rankabrand.

So I’m intending to take you on a bit of a personal exploration – and you’ll get to know my wardrobe as we go too 😉

I’m starting with two of my favourite brands: Skunkfunk & Nümph. And they couldn’t be further apart on this topic: Skunkfunk has an extensive page on sustainability, while Nümph has nothing. I’ve sent them an email to ask…

To be continued.

Destination #2: Hong Kong

I’m leaving Hong Kong at the end of a weekend celebrating the Moon Festival: especially on Thursday evening and Friday throughout the day it was obvious on the streets that people were out enjoying some extra free time. With moon cakes and lanterns to be seen at places such as Victoria Park. The Moon Festival mostly means some family time for people here, and most people were out of work by 4pm on Thursday with the day off on Friday.

It also turned into a weekend of anticipation of ‘superstorm’ Usagi: though some of the Dutch assured me that it would more likely be a strong autumn storm the way we know them in the Netherlands, I nevertheless am now on a Sunday morning train out of Hong Kong, and onto China to make sure I am across the border in case it gets closed down because of Usagi (strange that what is expected to be such a violent wind is called after such a cute little animal like a bunny). No doubt I’ll be catching some wind and rain either tonight or tomorrow in Guangzhou as well.

Despite having visited Guangzhou before, I am looking forward to now having a bit more time to actually see the city. Previously, this was limited to being in a car, on the way out to places such as Dongguan and Shenzhen.

In Hong Kong, ahead of the holiday weekend I mostly met up with some Dutch contacts working in either sustainability or trade support for Dutch companies. Because, apart from getting a better look at the sustainability field in Hong Kong I also want to know better whether or not CSR is a topic for European companies based with their regional headquarters in Hong Kong but who work in China. If it is, organisations such as the Dutch consulate or the Dutch Chamber of commerce in Hong Kong should have heard about this interest – or concern – from the companies they work with and for.

Unfortunately, these talks confirmed some of my suspicion that the operations side of a business (the people in charge of running a factory, selecting suppliers, or working with distributors in China and Hong Kong) is often far removed from the people working in CSR (which can be called differently, and placed in the organization differently in each company of course). Hearing stories from companies who have a local sustainability team here, but all decisions and policy are made in the Netherlands (both sustainability-related and operations-related) are not encouraging. But it confirms what I’ve seen in the past years of talking to individual companies as well.

The challenge will be how to connect these two parts of an organization: when done well, topics that fall under the umbrella of CSR or sustainability should be integrated throughout the organization and not limited to the responsibility of the CSR manager. This is difficult to do. But each time when I talk to an export manager and he is unable to tell me anything about his company’s activities on CSR I can’t help but be slightly disappointed – even if I understand that he has other primary concerns. I guess there’s still a lot of work ahead.

CSR Asia Summit 2013: looking back

It’s slowly getting light outside while I’m writing this at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok for my flight to Hong Kong [though the end is written from a hotel in Hong Kong – the wait turned out to be too short for this long piece!]. It feels strange to already be moving on to a new country but at the same time I look back at some very good days spent in Bangkok. Apart from the Summit, which I’ll get to below, I’ve had an opportunity to meet with a few more people here – Dutch people working in CSR or in trade & investment support for Dutch companies. It’s been good to see their perspective as well on how things work for Dutch companies working in Thailand.

But, let’s talk about the CSR Asia Summit 2013, the reason for me to add on these few days to my trip in the first place. The main point that I’m taking home from this is that CSR in Asia, and – the theme of this summit – opportunities for inclusive business, is so much more than only supply chain responsibility which the discussion seems to focus on in the Netherlands. And even then I think that that discussion is already limited.

In fact, supply chain responsibility was barely on the agenda here in Bangkok. That makes it a topic that I’ve missed in the programme, but it also shows that there is a lot more. In the closing address of the Summit, chairman Richard Welford mentioned that supply chain – and the issues involved such as labour and human rights – are indeed the number 1 dilemma for CSR Asia’s partner organisations and will be the main challenge that work is needed on. It also seems to be a topic that a lot of work is being done on outside of the Summit which may have been a reason to focus on other issues and themes here at this time.

What the other issues on the agenda were? To mention a few: inclusive community engagement, reporting for investors, women entrepreneurship, responsible business in Myanmar, biodiversity, business ethics, disaster preparedness, children’s rights, and the list continuous on. In total there were over 20 sessions for participants to choose from which sometimes caused some indecision on my part! The speakers in these sessions (or at least in the ones that I went to) were mostly high quality: able to share their thoughts concisely & easily understandable, up front and honest about what the dilemmas were in their practice, and clearly speaking from a broad personal experience. It was great to see when the personal passion for this topic occasionally came through in their stories.

The best sessions for me were on inclusive community consultation, business and human rights and on future strategies for companies in a changing – and often uncertain – business environment.

Inclusive community consultation
The session on inclusive community consultation was presented by two speakers: Steven Bartholomeusz from Sarawak Energy, a company building several hydropower plants on Sarawak in Malaysia, and Simon Lord from New Britain Palm Oil, active in palm oil production with plantations mostly in Papua New Guinea. Simon had already been part of the opening panel where I was impressed with his up-front way of talking about the challenges in the palm oil industry. In this session, he started off with a quick explanation of FPIC: Free Prior Informed Consultation. A term unknown to me, but which is the name for a process of consultation with a community, which can be used in industries with a high impact on the communities that surround its physical activities: extractive, agriculture and forestry are a few industries that come to mind and which are well-known for the problems arising from working with communities.

The session continued with both speakers sharing the practical side of working with local communities: resistance to corporate plans, working with local leaders to find consensus. But also: communities who are eager to have a company move in to their area as often – especially in remote and underdeveloped areas such as Sarawak or PNG – having a company set up a plantation, power infrastructure or something else is the only way to bring economic, and with that social, development to the region. For people living in the region, this may be of more importance than preserving pristine forest or local biodiversity.

The anecdotes and experiences shared gave me the sense that this may be one of the most complicated issues across the CSR umbrella: especially because of the high impact the business activities may generate, and the long term perspective that is needed.

A company setting up an oil palm plantation generally moves in for a 100 years, if not more. But can a local community have that long term perspective, and are they able to make decisions now that necessarily affect future generations that may have very different ideas at that time. Especially when often the day-to-day priorities come first: providing in their personal livelihood that day and the next. And this is why working with the FPIC process seems to be essential in creating that local support for the long term.

Working in this area takes a lot of courage and determination. Not only because of the external challenges, but also because often the CSR manager involved is facing a lot of resistance internally: after all, the primary aim of the company is to move in as quickly as possible so it can start making money.

Business and human rights
Business and human rights is an issue that is on the agenda in the Netherlands and across Europe much more recently, and many countries are currently working on their National Action Plans explaining how they will work with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the Ruggie framework) in policy, with companies, and in legislation. The UK was the first country to publish their action plan, which can be found here, and the Netherlands is currently working on their plan which especially NGOs seem to be eagerly awaiting.

This session focused on what human rights mean for companies doing business in Asia and one of the first questions asked by the moderator was: is the Ruggie Framework a gamechanger in this field, for business and others? The replies to this – the panel consisted of a Priyanga Hettiarachi from NGO RightsBusiness based in Sri Lanka, Thomas Wise from Chevron, and the Asia Pacific director Sam Zahiri of the International Commission of Jurists – were mixed, with a part Yes and a part No. Though both of these answers also came from one and the same person: I probably agree with the Chevron rep when he said that no, the adoption of the Ruggie framework and the consequences of this for business is not a game changer. After all: all the things included in the UNGP are things that a responsible company should already be doing. At the same time, yes, it is a game changer: it has created a common language for business, the not-for-profit sector and government on an issue that was – and still is sometimes – fraught with misunderstanding and different perspectives. In this sense, the principles in the UNGP can provide a much clearer understanding of the issues involved and allow all parties to work on these.

The panelists shared how their respective organisations work on this topic, also including a good explanation of the framework itself: what does protect, respect, remedy mean? It was also good to see that the speakers focused on why this is an issue that you have to do something about as a company and how to convince your board. The answer? A lot of it comes down to risk management: “if you don’t know your risks, it can shut down your operations.” This message was one that also spoke from the earlier community consultation session: if you are not able to find a way to work in consensus with the local community, this can delay or cancel your project.

Maybe not surprisingly, the discussion – and especially the contribution of the lawyer in the panel – often talked about legal action & litigation as the, seemingly, only way of remedy. I was interested to know more about the alternatives: grievance mechanisms within companies is an important recommendation in the UNGP, but also the NCP-system of the OECD Guidelines (one that I know well by now) offers an opportunity for alternative forms of remedy and conflict resolution. It was a pity that there was not more time to discuss this, although following my question on this, I have to agree with Zahiri that the NCP-system still needs a lot of work and practical experience to grow into the effective mechanism it has the potential to be.

Strategies for the future
The session on strategies for the future opened up with a speaker from Volans, a London-based consultancy, and while listening to Amy Birchall I felt as if this would be the session to talk about some of the things I had missed up until then. Because, throughout the summit it also felt as if we’d been talking about business as usual, but done more responsibly. And a good thing to talk about of course. But, don’t we also need to talk about how to do business in a world that isn’t continuing as usual? This might be something much more abstract or more conceptual than CSR as we define it currently, but there are some great examples in the Netherlands of, usually, smaller companies who look at doing business differently and find new business models or new products.

Amy Birchall talked about these considerations: how do you prepare for an uncertain future? Some of the examples she gave can be found online, such as the B-team and Breakthrough Capitalism.

The other two speakers talked about how they prepare their companies for the future, by scenario planning and by getting the whole company involved in thinking about a vision on 2050 and what that will mean for the day-to-day operations of a company now (for example, what do you invest in, where does your R&D focus on?). Of course, following this, some of the questions from the audience focused on the practical side of this: HOW do you go about figuring out what the future may bring for your company when no one can predict the future?

The other sessions I attended were on business models for the Bottom of the Pyramid (which, in a way, is related to the last session on future strategies as well) and on responsible business in Myanmar. I will follow up with a separate post on the latter one, hopefully soon.

Apart from the content of the sessions, I really enjoyed the mix of people attending this summit: corporate representatives from several countries and across a wide range of industries & many NGOs were there and easily approachable during the many opportunities to chat and meet people. Though there were also two groups (mostly) missing: SME representatives and government. I think this could really strengthen the discussion if CSR Asia manages somehow to find a way to tap into these groups as well for future events.

All in all, being here was worthwhile. Next year’s will be in Hong Kong, so I am definitely going to try and attend again.

CSR Asia Summit 2013: impressions of day 1

Finally, today, the reason why I added Bangkok to my itinerary started: the CSR Asia Summit 2013. I have been looking forward to this conference for the past few weeks, so I’ll post a few quick impressions here. So far so good, and I’m happy that I decided to spend a few days here.

The summit’s theme is ‘Responsible growth – inclusive development’. Especially in Asia this is a relevant theme I think, as business has an opportunity in many countries here to also help local communities in their economic and social development through their business activities. However, this is tough to do and requires a different way of doing business, which the session on Bottom of the Pyramid opportunities showed, where three companies – each very different in size, in strategy and in industry – shared how they provide energy, health products, or financial services to local communities. And make a profit (it is, after all, a business).

Some points on what I’ve noticed so far:

  • the summit has brought together a mixed and interesting group of people with over 450 participants from more than 30 countries. People come from big & small business, active in a variety of sectors (retail, palm oil, insurance, pharmaceutical etc), ngo’s, consultancy – the only group that I haven’t really come across yet is (local) government. And, everyone is easy to talk to, interested (and interesting!) and open for new contacts. Pretty essential for a successful conference! Interestingly, the Dutch seem to be the best represented coming from Europe – not counting Europeans based in Asia. I guess we’re living up to our international reputation of being a sustainability leader…? Not a lot of Japanese (or Koreans, actually) here though, which is not a good sign, but I also think the fact that the language here is English without interpretation available might have something to do with that.
  • the programme is filled with only a few plenary sessions, and mostly smaller panel/Q&A sessions on more specialized topics. And: plenty of time to network and meet new people in between. The sessions range from climate change business strategy and the role of women entrepreneurs to GRI’s G4 and business and human rights. The sessions I’ve attended so far have been interesting with good speakers (this seems to be a requirement to make it in CSR!) and practical discussions: how do you set up a successful Bottom of the Pyramid-business? (part of the answer: with lots of time, trial and error, creativity, and lots of conviction to overrule the sceptics) How do you put together a constructive community dialogue? Especially the session on community engagement was interesting for me: a topic I don’t know that much about (apart from that this is complicated to do when you are in the extractive of agriculture industry), but the speakers spoke a lot from their personal experiences in Papua New Guinea and Sarawak: we heard some fascinating anecdotes on when it goes wrong, but also on how you can work together well. Very interesting, because this seems like such a complicated topic to me that has so much potential impact on people’s livelihoods.
  • despite the many choices in sessions, I also miss some topics that I think are relevant in the Asian context – and relevant to the summit’s theme. But I’ll see what happens tomorrow, and I might be surprised after all, so more on that later.
  • and… finally, the participants don’t seem to be active Twitter-users. Not necessary of course, as CSR practicioners, but it would’ve been great to follow more of the discussions online – especially because there are so many different sessions. For now, the #csrasia hashtag that I’ve been using (assuming it’s the right one) is quite lonely…

And in between it all, interesting conversations (I’ve loved being able to talk about the things I care about with so many different people today, and hearing their views and ideas), useful contacts and am curious about what tomorrow will bring.

MVO in Japan: deel 2 online

Ik schreef er vorige week al over: het artikel (in twee delen) voor Katern: Japan over maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen in Japan, en wat ik daarover te weten ben gekomen. Tenminste, er is natuurlijk nog veel meer te vertellen dan alleen deze twee delen, maar dit geeft een aardig goed beeld.

Deze week is het tweede deel online gegaan, met daarin aandacht voor wat ik mis in de Japanse ontwikkelingen rond MVO. Zoals bijvoorbeeld aandacht vanuit het bedrijfsleven voor ketenverantwoordelijkheid wanneer bijvoorbeeld een bedrijf actief is in het buitenland. Maar ik schrijf ook over de andere rol van NGO’s en de invloed die dit heeft op het MVO-debat.

Wat is MVO in Japan? (deel 2)

Dit artikel werd eerder gepubliceerd op Katern Japan

Maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen in Japan, welke thema’s horen daar wel en niet bij? In deel 1 besprak ik wat Japanse bedrijven juist wel doen op dit gebied. Maar er ontbreken vaak ook onderwerpen in hun beleid.

Verschillende thema’s die internationaal veel aandacht krijgen, zijn tot nu toe relatief weinig terug te zien in het MVO-beleid van Japanse bedrijven. De meest opvallende hiervan vind ik bijvoorbeeld mensenrechten en ketenverantwoordelijkheid: thema’s die al snel een internationale – maar niet alleen – dimensie hebben waarbij het niet meer uitsluitend gaat over de activiteiten van het bedrijf in Japan zelf. Het lijkt wel alsof zodra een thema de grens over gaat (bijvoorbeeld arbeidsomstandigheden in een Japanse fabriek in Zuidoost-Azië) dit niet meer gezien wordt als een MVO-thema maar als een arbeidsthema waar een visie op verantwoord ondernemerschap geen echte rol speelt. Of in elk geval niet meer de verantwoordelijkheid is van het moederbedrijf in Japan. Dat is best gek: zeker vanuit Europa komt er steeds meer aandacht voor de verantwoordelijkheid van het moederbedrijf die uitstrekt naar dochterondernemingen, maar ook naar leveranciers en soms leveranciers van leveranciers.

Je ziet dus ook dat in Japan ontwikkelingen zoals de verdere praktische toepassing van de UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (het zogenaamde Ruggie framework) achterlopen op internationale discussies. Dit is jammer, want een aantal Japanse bedrijven hebben een flinke internationale positie en kunnen dus een sterke rol pakken om de negatieve impact van bedrijfsactiviteiten in – met name – minder ontwikkelde economieën te verminderen.

Lees meer

Wat is MVO in Japan? (deel 1)

Dit artikel werd eerder gepubliceerd op Katern Japan

Staat maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen op de agenda in Japan?

Hoe maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen Japanse bedrijven? Eigenlijk kon ik tot voor kort deze vraag niet goed beantwoorden, terwijl deze vraag over Nederlandse bedrijven juist steeds vaker gesteld wordt. Maatschappelijk Verantwoord Ondernemen (MVO) krijgt ook steeds meer aandacht van de consument, bijvoorbeeld te zien aan het nieuws over en de reacties op de ingestortte fabriek in Bangladesh in april.

Maar over MVO of duurzaam ondernemen in Japan hoor je maar weinig. Dit terwijl Japan toch de derde economie ter wereld is en een aardig aantal Japanse merken household names zijn geworden, ook buiten Japan (denk maar aan Sony of Mitsubishi). Staat MVO eigenlijk wel op de agenda bij bedrijven in Japan?

Met deze vraag ging ik recent op pad in Tokyo. Ik wilde weten of MVO een relevant onderwerp is voor het Japanse bedrijfsleven, en welke thema’s dan in het bijzonder aandacht krijgen. Niet alleen is dit relevant in de Japanse context, maar dit is ook van belang voor de internationale discussie over wat MVO is en wat de internationale gemeenschap van het bedrijfsleven mag – en kan – verwachten.*

Lees meer

Online bij Katern: MVO in Japan

Osaka / rooftop urban garden

Hoewel ik het hier al weer heb gehad over een volgende werkreis naar het Oosten, ben ik momenteel nog druk bezig met het opvolgen van gelegde contacten en opgedane kennis in Tokyo toen ik daar in mei was. Want dat was een erg succesvolle week, dus daar wil ik juist veel mee gaan doen in Nederland.

Door te laten zien wat er in Japan speelt op het gebied van MVO en duurzaamheid (zoals duurzame stedelijke ontwikkeling, waar ik gisteren ook over schreef) hoop ik ook aan een Nederlands publiek te tonen dat hier interessante dingen gebeuren en dat er raakvlakken liggen voor Nederlandse organisaties.

Maar waar laat je dat zien? Bijvoorbeeld via de (nog relatief jonge) site Katern: Japan waar vandaag mijn eerste artikel over MVO in Japan verscheen. Binnenkort verschijnt deel 2.

OECD Guidelines

OECD Guidelines: what you should know

In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned the OECD Guidelines: international guidelines on responsible business conduct – or corporate social responsibility – supported by 44 (soon: 45) countries world wide.

Since late last year I have been working for the Dutch National Contactpoint for the OECD Guidelines, which is an organisation set up in each of those 44 countries who have committed themselves to the Guidelines, with the main purpose of working towards the practical application of the Guidelines by internationally operating companies.

What are the OECD Guidelines?

And now, I don’t even have to share long articles or texts with you to explain the basics of what the Guidelines, and the work of the NCP’s – is about. All you have to do is watch this 10-minute film, which was one of my projects over the last few months.

OECD Guidelines & Netherlands NCP: the story from OESO richtlijnen on Vimeo.

CSR in Japan: the highlights

I’ve just finished my last meeting, closing off this week with an interesting dicsussion with officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative talking about CSR policy in Japan, but also answering their questions on CSR in the Netherlands. Interestingly, they see the Netherlands as one of the leading countries on CSR, accentuated by for example the GRI conference in Amsterdam this week, a new Dutch appointment at the OECD for the Working Group on Responsible Business Conduct and many Dutch speakers at the upcoming Global Conference on Responsible Business Conduct in Paris in June.

Their first question started with exactly this: why is CSR so important and prominent in the Netherlands…. I hope my answer made sense!

But looking back at this week, I have gained so much more knowledge and understanding of this topic in the Japanese context. So I am very happy with how this week has gone and the many different people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with. Of course, there is still much more to learn and many more people I would love to talk to. Next time.

As I’m sipping a coffee, I’m also mentally listing the main points of this week. I’ll add them here below in short bullets, in case it will take me a long time to write out all the things I’ve learnt more fully.

> main premise is that a company is part of society, and contributes to society;
> CSR is something a company just has to ‘do’, there doesn’t seem to be a discussion on the need for a business case, as there seems to be in the Netherlands. This only becomes relevant here when talking about sustainability & sustainable development;
> focus within local community: do good?;
> focus within environmental topics: do no harm;
> extensive tradition of reporting follows from major environmental incidents in the 1960’s & ’70’s but is also part of a business tradition of reporting on many things, including CSR;
> additionally: peer pressure in Japan is high, which is also an explanation for the high percentage of reporting companies;
> but, CSR reports seem to be somewhat limited: focus is mostly on environment, governance and domestic situation (in general);
> major international companies make the connection to the international discourse on CSR (relevance of supply chain, stakeholder dialogue, due diligence), but for many others this is still not quite there;
> only recently, issues such as human rights and labour are coming to be seen as part of CSR (which was also part of a METI-research project)
> ISO26000 is best known from the international CSR frameworks, and is government-backed; ISO-systems are very popular in Japan, but with this ISO26000 runs the risk of becoming a checklist;
> relevance of UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is not yet well understood among business;
> sustainability is slowly seen as a business opportunity: sustainable building is ‘hot’, investment in renewable energy is increasing. But, incentive is also strongly financial;
> the local ngo’s have a relatively weak position vis-a-vis the general society and business.