CSR in Asia

Outside of the office, the last few weeks I’ve been working on my professional plans for the upcoming new year – I will be sharing more on that later but it will not be a surprise that they center on Asia and CSR. Those are also the topics that I (irregularly) write about here.

However, these are also two topics that – in the Netherlands, at least – don’t automatically belong together. CSR discussions and events here are often focused on issues that concern companies in their activities within the Netherlands itself. Understandable, of course.

But at the same time CSR doesn’t limit itself to the borders of the country where a company is based. Especially in a country where international trade is so important to economic growth, companies are naturally confronted with international issues as part of their CSR policy.

I am specifically interested in how CSR is developing in Asian countries, and what this may mean for Dutch or other international businesses. Of course Asia includes some of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies. This means that many foreign companies do business in this region and developing CSR policies that fit local activities will be increasingly important for them.

I try to keep track of many different sources of information on these two topics, but again it seems as if these two themes do not really find eachother on a Dutch platform. As a cautious beginning I started a Dutch-language Twitter account where I will be collecting news, information, blogs and whatever else is interesting to send out into the world about CSR-developments and sustainability topics in Asia. For those in the Netherlands, I hope to see you as followers! Find it here: MVO in Azië

Books with impact

A few weeks ago I posted my favourite books on China: what are must-read’s on this country if you want to get an idea of what is going on in this country, according to mthld of course.

But I don’t only read on China (and in that case, that list possibly would’ve been longer). Especially some of the books which I’ve read on the topic of sustainability and corporate social responsibility have made quite an impact on how I view these topics and what I have done about them in my personal life. But not only that, reading about these issues and getting a better understanding of them has also led me to work towards a career shift. I’m in the middle of this career shift right now in which I will combine the topics of international business and CSR much more than I have done so far. Exciting stuff.

More will follow about that later, for now – what are these books that have made such an impact?

Collapse by Jared Diamond
Diamond is the writer of another fascinating book (Guns, Germs and Steel) which is a recommended read as well – but for me this book is the more interesting of the two. In this book Diamond describes what made the difference for societies to either be successful or to fail. Often, according to Diamond, the reasons behind this are in part environmental and also dependent on how societies work with their natural environment. He sketches how caring for and maintaining the natural environment properly is a critical factor in the survival of a society. Fascinating reading, which gave me a much better understanding of longer term effects of environment and of not handling it as well as we should.

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
Despite the title of this book, this book – and the one-week experiment that resulted from it, the No Impact Project – has probably influenced my personal life and the choices I make the most. The book is the result of one year living with no (or at least very minimal) impact on the environment in the middle of New York City. Colin Beavan’s year goes to a lot more extremes than is considered comfortable living, but it also shows what is possible. By participating in the No Impact Project (twice, and it’s starting again in the Netherlands in spring 2013) I’ve discovered much more about the possibilities of changes in your own behaviour towards a more sustainable way of living than I expected.

Prosperity without growth by Tim Jackson
Is continuous economic growth possible within the limits of the earth? Jackson argues that it isn’t , but he also argues that economic growth is not necessary for prosperity. However, this does require major changes in the current economic system, and in this book he explains some of them and how to make them work. Persuasive reading, and especially recommended if you are interested in the economic & business side of sustainability.

The necessary revolution by Peter Senge, and others
This is another book which looks at the more economic side of sustainability and the changes needed both to make business more sustainable but also how this will impact the rest of society. It looks at creating partnerships across society and how this will enable change to happen. Interesting ideas, and it contains good examples and best practices.

The ecology of commerce by Paul Hawken
This is an older book on the basics of what sustainibility means for business, and how business can work with this. Still worth a read.

With the amount of books written about CSR & sustainability of course there is a lot more out there. For the moment however, these are my personal favourites – and of course I am always curious to hear your’s. What is missing from this list?

On benefit corporations

On Tuesday night I attended the second CSR Meetup in Amsterdam which would be about the phenomenon of benefit corporations. A term I had never heard of before, so I was interested to learn more as it’s one part of social entrepreneurship.

I like the idea of social entrepreneurship where a social issue becomes central and contributing to a change on this issue is taken up as a business venture. This also seems to be an increasing phenomenon.

Taking on a social issue as a business, or at least making social issues central to how you do business, also means taking into account the concerns of all stakeholders. And not just the shareholder whose main objective is likely to be making the most profit. In the Netherlands this idea isn’t new at all: Dutch corporate law determines that a company needs to make the best decision for the company based on the interests of all stakeholders. However, in the US this is not the case. According to corporate law there the wishes of the shareholders – i.e. maximizing profit – are leading for company decisions. A more legal discussion on these differences can be read in this article by Sjoerd Kamerbeek.

The non-profit organisation B-Lab is working with businesses in the US to change this and it wants to introduce legislation that will make it legally binding to take all stakeholders into account and report on this for these types of corporations. Eleven states have so far passed this legislation which makes the legal environment for social enterprises much more secure.

B-Lab is doing a lot more than just this policy work which was the main topic of the CSR Meetup where the organisation gave an overview of their main activity: certifying companies for the B-Corp standards.

B-Corp is a certification scheme which aims to ‘shine the light’ on these companies with that community mission. It isn’t just about a product – for which there are many standards already – but looks at the whole of the company and whether it lives up to this premise and reports on it accordingly. So far, over 600 companies (one well-known example of which is Patagonia) have been certified, mainly in the US. Interest is this scheme is increasing in other countries and the organization is exploring which other countries would be interesting to expand to.

What I find most interesting about B-Corp is that it seems to turn around the premise of doing business and assesses a company on that. Many other certification & reporting schemes (GRI, ISO26000, MVO Prestatieladder, to name just a few that I know of) work with the idea that a company’s main concern is making a profit but they should do this responsibly – and this is where these certifications come in. B-Corp looks at it the other way around: a company is in it for the good of society and it’s, happily, making money doing so. How well does it live up to that premise, and, what is a company’s social impact, are the questions that B-Corp tries to answer.

The ideas behind B-Corp are interesting and it’s good to see it growing, though I can’t help wondering if there would also be a place for yet another certification scheme in the Netherlands. Consumers are already getting lost in the masses of eco- and sustainability labels on products: would one that is not about the product but about the company behind it be any less confusing or any more transparent? I also see that it is becoming more difficult for, especially, SME’s to figure out if CSR certification will be useful to them and if so, which scheme to use. Adding another option to the mix might only be counterproductive.

I haven’t made up my mind yet, despite an interesting evening of presentations and discussion. I am curious though to see what progress B-Lab will make in further positioning this scheme in the US and abroad. And most of all, how companies will respond.

De toekomst van werk

De afgelopen weken hebben bij mij vooral in het teken gestaan van werk, maar dan vooral: in welke vorm zou ik idealiter willen werken? Wat vind ik belangrijk in hoe ik werk, en bij mijn werk-/opdrachtgevers?

Stukje bij beetje begint daar een duidelijker beeld bij te ontstaan – en dat is eigenlijk ook een heel spannend proces. Ik ben de afgelopen tijd in dat proces ook een aantal uitdrukkingen tegen gekomen die mij enorm aanspreken en inspireren. Hieronder een paar van die uitdrukkingen (want een blog – of in elk geval dit blog – is tenslotte bedoeld om ideeën mee te delen):

> Ondernemer van je eigen talent

> Mens- & talentgericht werken

> Zelfstandig professional, met vooral daaraan gekoppeld de volgende regels uit het boek Society 3.0 waar ik al eerder aan refereerde:

Mensen hebben geen organisatie meer nodig om inkomen te verwerven. Ze werken tegelijkertijd voor en binnen verschillende netwerken en kiezen zelf welk netwerk hun ‘inzet’ verdient.

En als laatste, misschien wel de kreet die het meest mijn gevoel bevestigt van hoe de moderne arbeidsmarkt er uit zou (moeten) zien

> Loyaal aan je vak, in plaats van aan je werkgever

Want to know more about China? My five reading suggestions

China is a much-discussed country following the increasingly important role it is taking up in the world. This also means there is a wealth of books out there (not to mention blogs, articles, and all kinds of other news) which all explore some part of China. A simple query on Amazon brings up tens of thousands of titles. Wow.

I recently finished another book on China, one which has gotten a lot of exposure and good reviews since it was published in 2010. The book made me look back at what I have been reading over the last few years and I’ve put together my personal top 5 of non-fiction books on China, for anyone looking for some interesting reading. The books are a mix of politics, society, history and a little bit of economics – and posted in random order.

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan
This book is a collection of essays on Chinese regular citizens who made a difference, in one way or another, written by a former China-correspondent of the Washington Post. What I liked about it is that the stories are very personal, every chapter is on one individual. Together, the stories touch on a lot of important parts of Chinese history and society: Tiananmen Square in 1989, SARS in 2004, hutongs being demolished in Beijing etc. This means that you get a pretty good grasp of modern history and society, while at the same time being drawn in to the personal stories of these individuals.

The Party: The secret world of China’s communist rulers by Richard McGregor
I’ve seen this book at the top of various Top 10 China book listings, and I’m not surprised. The book describes how the Chinese Communist Party works and every chapter discusses a different part of its workings, including the judicial system, HR inside the party, state-owned enterprises etc. Fascinating to read how all-encompassing this system really is.

The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella
The subtitle of this book is China’s urban revolution and what it means to the world, which sums up pretty well what this book is about. I’m quite interested by how cities grow and evolve, as this will be increasingly difficult to do well with an ever-expanding population and growing pressure on resources, land, etc. This is not only true in Europe, but much much more so in China where cities of several million inhabitants and more are the rule, rather than the exception. This book discusses how cities in China have evolved, discusses the impact on society of these changes, and shows some fascinating examples of Chinese urbanisation right now with a chapter devoted to for example themed suburbs and themeparks. It’s a more academic read than the other books in this list, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Tied to this book I also want to mention another book on Chinese urbanisation which looks at the same topics from the perspective of the people living in those cities: How the city moved to Mr. Sun, written by Dutch journalists Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen. The duo visited 13 of China’s new megacities: cities away from the Eastcoast and more inland such as Chongqing, Lanzhou and Hohhot. In these cities they follow the life of someone who lives there and this story represents the impact these expanding cities have on China and its population. Besides containing interesting stories, the book is also beautifully designed with lots of photographs and additional information.

Red Dust by Ma Jun
This is a very different book than the others which are listed in this post, as this is a travelogue by a Chinese journalist who leaves Beijing to travel around China for three years in the early 1980’s. I haven’t read it for a long time (and in fact, gave it away to an ex-colleague – as I’ve done with many of these books) but it still sticks with me as quite a special and fascinating travel story of China 30 years ago.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter
This book actually prompted this post, as I finished it most recently. It has received quite a bit of coverage since its publication in 2010 and it’s clear why: the book uses formerly inaccessable Chinese archives to go through the couple of years of the famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1962. I didn’t know that much about this particular part of Chinese history. Most of the gruesome history is told about the Cultural Revolution – but not anymore. Through his research Dikötter estimates that around 45 million people died during these four years in China, through famine and related causes. The book contains LOTS of numbers, statistics and facts that made it slow reading, but the amount of research put into this book is dazzling and it’s very recommended if you want to get a better understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party made their decisions – at least during this time it seemed to be all about keeping up appearances to your boss and to the outside world. But at least not based on what is happening in the country itself.


So, the above are my favourites on China (in random order) but of course there is much more that I haven’t read, and I have a couple of books waiting on my book shelf, but this top 5 will be hard to break into.

What have you read, and what did you like? Please share your additional recommendations in the comments!

‘White elephants’

I was contacted recently by a journalist asking about some photographs I took on a trip to China two years ago. He is working on an article on ‘white elephants’ in China which is why he contacted me. I had never heard of this expression until then, but Wikipedia explains:

A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered to be without use or value.

The New South China Mall in Dongguan, Guangdong province in southern China is one of these ‘white elephants’. I was taken there on a road trip showing the extremes of Chinese development. I wrote the below short article on my impressions of that day (written in april 2010).


The Pearl River Delta is the main economic region in China and the two main cities, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, are some of the richest cities in the country. We spent the day driving to see some extremes of China – a good change from being in meeting rooms in Beijing for the four days before.

Shenzhen actually surprised me. The city has transformed in 30 years from a small fishing village across from Hong Kong to a major, modern city filled with high-tech companies. It was the first Special Economic Zone in China, announced in 1978 as part of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy. It sparked tremendous growth for the region and ultimately made the Pearl River Delta into the production powerhouse of the world. A lot of the cheap toys and computer components which are ‘made in China’ are likely to have been made here. So in my mind Shenzhen would be a very industrial, factory-filled, dirty & grey, chaotic city. Similar, in fact, to surrounding cities such as Dongguan.

Surprisingly it was much better than that. We visited Shenzhen to meet with an architect from OMA who is working on the construction of the building for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. And this is only one of many buildings under construction with some other top designed buildings close-by. The wealth of the city is clearly showing.

But to show me that China isn’t all about amazing growth rates, spectacular buildings and more, my colleague also took me to the biggest shopping mall in the world. I guess it’s another symptom of China’s development where everything needs to be bigger and better. But bigger doesn’t always mean better, as the New South China Mall clearly shows.

At first we thought we were in for a disappointment. Driving up to the mall we saw shops, people, lights and, well, activitiy. This wasn’t what we were coming for. Because apart from it being big, we were told it would also be empty. When we walked in behind the McDonald’s we were relieved to see this was true. Five floors and corridors going off in every direction, but no shop in sight. It was clear that there had been some shops at a point in time, but everything was gone apart from the Spar, the McD’s and the local drugstore out front. A ghost shopping mall – and an example of how it can go very wrong as well.

Haphazard investment clearly doesn’t automatically guarantee growth and further investment. And that ties in nicely with a presentation I attended earlier that week on the Chinese economy. That presentation closed off with the prediction that the current level of high investment is only going to have a negative effect and that China’s economy will crash within the next few years. Let’s see what will happen.

Dongguan/ New South China Mall

Toverwoorden: ruilen – delen – samenwerken


Het lijken de laatste paar weken toverwoorden te zijn die ik op veel, en vooral op onverwachte, momenten tegen kom. Natuurlijk zijn dit geen nieuwe begrippen. Het ruilen van goederen voor andere goederen bijvoorbeeld staat aan de basis van het samen leven van groepen mensen, waar intussen ‘gewoon’ geld voor in de plaats is gekomen.

Maar waar ik ook kijk, waar ik ook ben, of wat ik ook lees – het gaat tegenwoordig over ruilen, delen en samenwerken. Bijvoorbeeld als kernwaarde van nieuwe duurzame business modellen waar het magazine P+ vorige maand over schreef naar aanleiding van onderzoek van hoogleraar Jan Jonker. Uit dat onderzoek blijkt dat geld niet meer het enige ruilmiddel is en dat het samenwerken centraal staat in deze nieuwe business modellen.

Maar ook op bijvoorbeeld een Pechakucha avond in Amsterdam kwam in de meeste presentaties een vorm van bovenstaande naar voren: muzieksite 22tracks die juist is begonnen vanuit de gedachte om goede muziek te kunnen delen; de T-shirt ruilkraam van de Tilburg Cowboys waarbij je je oude bezwete t-shirt op een festival kan inruilen voor een schoongewassen ander t-shirt; of de fotograaf die unieke fotocamera’s weg geeft en de blije nieuwe eigenaar op het hart drukt om er iets moois mee te doen.

Tegelijkertijd ben ik begonnen met het lezen van het boek Society 3.0; een boek dat ingaat op hoe het anders zou kunnen in Nederland en dat met name de rol van (virtuele) netwerken hierin centraal stelt. Ik ben er nog lang niet helemaal door heen, maar ik ben erg benieuwd naar de ideeën.

Want vanmiddag belandde ik in een uitgebreide discussie met een goede vriend over hoe een echt flexibele arbeidsmarkt er uit zou kunnen zien. Dus niet het nieuwe werken wat, in mijn beleving, in de praktijk met name betekent dat je met je laptop ergens anders dan op kantoor zit. Maar echt flexibel werken: dat je langdurig verbonden bent aan meerdere opdrachtgevers die je serieus nemen in plaats van of gezien worden als tijdelijke zzp’er die er nu even voor een klus is of in plaats van een voltijds arbeidscontract waarin geen ruimte is voor aanvullende, niet-concurrerende opdrachten. In die situatie gaat het juist om waarde toevoegen op de juiste plek – en die juiste plek kan variëren gedurende de week. [verdere uitwerking hiervan volgt] De kern blijft: delen & samenwerken waarbij je gebruik maakt van de juiste expertise beschikbaar binnen een netwerk van gelijkgestemden.

Het leidt wel tot de persoonlijke vraag: waar vind ik mijn plek in dit bewegende spectrum van ruilen – delen – samenwerken. Op dit moment bevind ik me, professioneel gezien, in een grote organisatie met een duidelijke taakomschrijving. Een deeltaak daarin is het opbouwen van een (extern) netwerk en het samenwerken met partners, maar binnen een beperkt kader. Kan dat niet flexibeler of in meer vrijheid? Of moet ik mijn plek daar meer zelf in vinden, of zelfs: veroveren?

Met dezelfde vriend proberen we sinds een tijdje een groepje mensen bij elkaar te krijgen die werken op vergelijkbare thematiek en die juist ook open staan voor het delen & samenwerken. We noemen het Crossover, juist omdat het over meerdere expertises & vakgebieden gaat en die met elkaar probeert te verbinden. Maar eigenlijk willen we meer.

En terwijl ik al dit overdacht vanavond op de bank kwam het journaal voorbij met daarin een reportage over Griekenland. Zoals eigenlijk elke dag, zul je denken. Gelukkig was deze anders, en betrof het een positief verhaal. In Griekenland hebben kleine gemeenschappen een manier gevonden om ook zonder de euro diensten en goederen te kunnen ‘kopen’: ze zijn terug gegaan naar het aloude ruilen. Een mooie afsluiter van de dag dus. Hier te kijken en ook nog over te lezen.

Video: Where good ideas come from

I saw this video a few weeks ago, but it has stuck with me since then, so it’s time to share.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb0ssmoXG1I&w=420&h=315]

I’ve had a few ideas floating in my head but none of them are concrete enough yet to start doing something with them. It’s good to know that all it takes is time for these ideas to connect and make sense!

Along the tsunami coast

Kesennuma, Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, Miyako – two weeks ago I was travelling through a region in Japan where I had only heard of the names of places because of one thing: the tsunami that happened on 11 March 2011.

I only travelled part of this coast though, starting from Miyako in Iwate prefecture and heading north along a coast that is the northern half of the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park: 180 kilometers of stunning and spectacular cliffs, rocks and other natural scenery. I have a feeling this part may be one of the more accessible regions though I don’t know for sure. One reason is that here trains are mostly back up – with a short exception – while I have heard that further south there is much more work still to be done. I guess it’s more remote and some towns there suffered incredible damage.

Miyako is a town which feels good. Yes, there was a lot of damage but in the city centre this is mostly visible when you start noticing how much buildings look very new, or at least the ground floor does. Dinner, for example, was in a very friendly izakaya where the owners renovated for two months before re-opening as the building had been flooded with water 2 meters high. They had been inside during the earthquake and only barely managed to keep themselves standing – and then got the hell out of there to get away as quickly as possible for the expected tsunami.

Most of the ‘visible’ damage in Miyako – the rubble, the collapsed buildings, etc – is gone, with a collapsed Shell gas station as the clear exception. Instead, the city is rebuilding. And you can tell it is: there’s lots of traffic, a lot of people about town, hotels are fully booked, and buildings are being rebuilt where ever you look. The town’s people are positive that when summer is here, so will the tourists.

There’s good reason for the tourists to come to see the dramatic cliffs of the coastal national park. These rocks and cliffs are also again a reminder of the force of nature. They have been here for centuries and still look the same as always: strong, imposing, powerful. Just like the tsunami was.

I’m continuing my journey north by train and for the moment also by bus for a short stretch of railroad which hasn’t been restored yet (the other parts were put back to use only earlier this spring). But like a taxi driver told me “We won’t be beat”, which is even all the more admirable considering that people living here are confronted with what happened every day again – but that only seems to make their conviction to build up their towns and villages even stronger.

A very very impressive start of my 10 days across Tohoku.