The diversity of Ethical Corporation’s 2011 awards winners reflects the expanding acceptance of sustainable business practices

Responsible business is booming if the entries for the second Ethical Corporation awards are anything to judge by. In nearly 200 submissions, nominees demonstrated creative thinking and a clear commitment to sustainability.

Entries came from multinationals such as Unilever and the United States Postal Service, but also from lesser-known names, such as Yorkshire-based paving specialist Marshalls.

The winners were chosen by a judging panel headed by corporate responsibility guru and Ethical Corporation contributing editor Mallen Baker, and announced at an awards dinner in central London in May, coinciding with Ethical Corporation’s responsible business summit.

Baker says he is pleased nominations had come from virtually all sectors and a wide geographical spread, including Afghanistan, Australia and Brazil, as well as Europe and the US. “Sustainable business is no longer the preserve of the northern hemisphere developed world,” Baker says.

In choosing the winners in the nine award categories, the panel was particularly looking for leadership: companies that had decided to take the ethical and sustainability initiative because it was the right thing to do. In some cases this had compromise implications for the bottom line, but the true leaders decided to forge ahead anyway and found ways to make it work, in contrast to companies that only pursue corporate responsibility once the business case is proven.

The panel also tested the shortlisted companies by assessing if their sustainability claims were really measurable. Judges wanted proof that the award winners were and are making a real difference to the business community through their progressive thinking.

Rewarding commitment

Outstanding corporate commitment to high ethical standards was recognised by the sustainability commercialised,best private company, and high performance awards. The respective winners were Kingfisher, Firmenich and Unilever.

Kingfisherowns some of Europe’s biggest home improvement chains, mainly in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom. It sells a huge range of products to thousands of consumers and professionals who pass daily through the doors of B&Q, Castorama, Brico Dépôt and Screwfix. Particular sustainability questions for Kingfisher concern its use of timber and chemicals, and the water and energy consumption of its products.

Kingfisher is working to ensure that the products it sells are the best in class for sustainability. Its eco-product range must meet certain corporate responsibility criteria, and be among the most sustainable on the market. Jamie Lawrence, Kingfisher’s corporate responsibility manager, says thousands of eco-products have been introduced, now contributing 11% of the group’s sales.

In choosing Kingfisher for the sustainability commercialised award, the Ethical Corporation panel believes the company has made a “serious and strategic commitment to eco-products”, and had shown that sustainability is a positive choice that could be rewarded through higher sales. Lawrence said the company had been “very nicely surprised” by the award, and the recognition would underpin further efforts to make Kingfisher more sustainable.

To develop its eco-product ranges, the company plans to introduce more precise criteria that take into account the entire lifecycle of its products. Kingfisher also plans to factor in sustainability criteria when purchasing products that do not currently fall into the eco-product categories. “It will have a bigger impact economically and environmentally to apply some of these principles across our range, from power drills to curtains to cushions,” Lawrence says.

In the best non-listed company category, the judging panel chose a 115-year-old Swiss producer of fragrances and flavourings: Firmenich. In 2010, the company took a host of measures to scrutinise its performance and become more sustainable. In particular it has adopted a strategy for 2015 with a range of targets, including a 50% workplace safety improvement, a 15% water usage reduction and a switch to at least partial renewable energy use by 90% of its facilities.

The company also achieved a range of sustainability-related certifications, created a charitable foundation and went into partnerships with the BioTrade Initiative, the GoodPlanet Foundation and the Naandi Foundation. Its sustainability reporting is independently verified, and – unique in its sector – it has a sustainability council providing external expertise, including from the International Business Leaders’ Forum.

The company’s chief executive, Patrick Firmenich, believes sustainability is a “game changer”. The Ethical Corporation judging panel was impressed by the breadth and depth of Firmenich’s approach, and by its transparency.

The winner of the high performance award, Unilever, is a true giant. Its food, cleaning and personal care brands are found worldwide. Its 2010 income was bigger than Bulgaria’s GDP. Its footprint is thus significant as is its stand on sustainability matters, through its Sustainable Living Plan.

The company has adopted ambitious goals for 2020, with overarching aims of halving its environmental footprint and improving the lives if its customers and suppliers. The judging panel felt Unilever was pursuing sustainability on a grand scale by setting out the most ambitious and progressive programme for a company of its size and reach. With its 2020 objectives, the company is covering the value chain from sourcing to consumer use and disposal of products, and integrating social, environmental and economic impacts.

Quality campaigns

Effective partnerships were recognised by two awards: the mosteffective campaigner, won by campaign platform 38 Degrees, and the best collaboration, won by UK landscaping firm Marshalls and Indian NGO Hadoti Hast Shilp Sansthan.

The judges selected 38 Degrees for the effective campaigner award on the basis of its work resisting UK government plans to sell publicly owned forests into private hands. The scheme provoked widespread opposition, and 38 Degrees was able to crystallise the debate through a high profile campaign and a half-a-million signature petition. Ultimately the government agreed to change its plans.

The campaign was one of many run by 38 Degrees, which is modelled on initiatives such as America’s, which highlights issues of concern and acts as a focus for campaigns. 38 Degrees claims 800,000 members who have participated in some way in a campaign. According to the organisation’s David Babb, its starting principle is that “there are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who care about stuff”.

38 Degrees members were “very concerned about the government’s [forest] plan, and the impact of a sell-off on wildlife and their own ability to enjoy the forests”, Babb says. The campaign was a “real team effort” that involved 38 Degrees members contacting their MPs, and paying for newspaper advertisements and opinion surveys. Babb said 38 Degrees was “dead chuffed” to be recognised for its efforts by an Ethical Corporation award.

In the best collaboration cateory, the judges said the entry by Huddersfield-based paving and landscaping firm Marshalls was “fantastic”. The company worked with an Indian NGO to improve the health and well-being of quarry workers, providing schooling, health visits and life insurance. The company’s move was a brave one in a competitive, recession-hit business environment, the judges say.

Transparent communications

Corporate social responsibility can often be undermined by non-transparent reporting. To reward clarity in communications, the judging panel chose L’Oréal and Swiss supermarket chain Coop to receive, respectively, the innovative reporting and authentic communications awards.

Coop, Switzerland’s second largest retail group, offers its customers the Oecoplan range of more than 1,500 green products, including gardening and personal hygiene products. The products are designed to be produced and disposed of with the lowest possible environmental impact, and have been backed by an advertising campaign emphasising the benefits of sustainability.

Coop’s Carine Boetsch says Oecoplan products have been on the shelves since 1989, but have only recently been actively advertised. In 2010, Oecoplan sales grew by 5% to 117m Swiss francs (£82m). “Compared to the stagnation in general sales, we could say that consumers like our sustainable products,” Boetsch says. She added that Coop is flattered to have won the authentic communications award, “especially when big international companies were nominated”.

Cosmetics giant L’Oréal won the innovative reporting award because its sustainability reports are “impressive in scope and detail, and deal with material issues, backed up by detailed data”, the judges say. L’Oréal opened a dedicated sustainability reporting website in July last year, enabling users to interactively interrogate the company’s data. The website does not hold back from dealing with difficult issues such as animal testing.

Emmanuel Lulin, L’Oréal’s group director of ethics, says the award is “very encouraging for us. Transparency is, with courage, one of the two virtues which support L’Oréal’s fundamental values: integrity, respect and the pursuit of excellence. These values must continue to guide our relationships with our stakeholders.”

Chris Wille: a quiet hero

Chris Wille, the winner of the Ethical Corporation lifetime achievement Award, is a co-founder of the Rainforest Alliance and now heads its sustainable agriculture programme. He helped oversee the development of the Rainforest Alliance from a small interest group with three employees, to a leading campaign organisation with more than 350 staff and a presence in 60 countries. Rainforests, Wille has said, are a “little narrow strip of forest around the equator, but half of the world’s plants and animals are there”. The conservation of this extraordinary biodiversity is a crucial global issue.

In bestowing the lifetime achievement award on Chris Wille, the judging panel lauded him as a “quiet hero”. He has worked tirelessly, but has not sought the spotlight. Nevertheless, he has done much to make the case to companies that conservation is in their interest. He has been a major mover in developing the highest standards for sustainable farming, forestry and tourism, and has been a powerful influence on corporate thinking on sustainability. Corporate giants such as Kraft, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé and Unilever have much to thank him for.

His work has had an impact on whole countries. One environmentalist says that, in Costa Rica, “it was customary for farmers to throw their waste into rivers and for workers to live within the farms that were regularly sprayed with illegal pesticides. It was common for farmers to cut down however many trees they wanted, whenever they wanted, in order to expand their croplands. By the time Chris Wille left and moved back to his native Oregon in 2010, all that had changed.”

Wille has helped companies transform their operations precisely because he has not compromised his principles. He has challenged them to do better and has taken a practical approach to working with them so that they can see the opportunities presented by sustainability. He is, according to Brendan May, Ethical Corporation contributing editor, “one of the true global leaders in the history of responsible business”.

Fábio Barbosa:sustainable banking pioneer

Fábio Colletti Barbosais Brazil’s financial sector sustainability trailblazer. He first came to prominence in the late 1990s when, following its takeover by ABN Amro, he became chairman of one of Brazil’s biggest banks, Banco Real. Under his leadership, Banco Real became Brazil’s foremost responsible lender. It was the first Brazilian bank, for example, to refuse loans to companies linked with logging in the Amazon.

Banco Real was absorbed by Spain’s Santander in 2007. Barbosa remained at the helm of the reconstituted financial institution – which was much larger than Banco Real – and drilled into it his philosophy that the best companies to back in the long term were those that took their social and environmental responsibilities seriously.

He established extensive training programmes for top executives to reinforce a sustainable approach throughout the corporation. The emphasis was on transparency, the highest standards of corporate governance, and the expansion of the bank’s operations into non-traditional fields, such as lending to renewable energy projects, services that take into account the needs of disabled customers, and micro-lending. The bank’s clients also benefited from sustainability workshops, which were aimed at creating dialogue and imparting good practices.

Barbosa’s view is that a big organisation such as Grupo Santander Brasil needs a unifying aim. Serving society provides that. The bank has backed sustainable projects in many areas, from sustainable construction to tourism to timber, all crucial areas for Brazil. Barbosa’s approach has received the biggest possible endorsement from investors – a 2009 share issue attracted a Brazilian-record breaking $8.05bn in fresh capital.

Earlier this year, Barbosa stepped down as chief executive to become chairman of Santander’s board of directors in Brazil. In choosing him to receive the individual leader award, the Ethical Corporation judges feel he has demonstrated leadership over 15 years, and that the Brazilian financial sector as a whole had benefited from his clear and original thinking.

Award winners and highly commended companies

Individual leader

Winner: Fabio Barbosa, Banco Santander

High performance (sponsored by Accenture)

Winner: Unilever

Highly commended: US Postal Service

Innovative Reporting

Winner: L’Oréal

Highly commended: Petrobras

Authentic communications

Winner: Coop

Highly commended: InBev

Effective campaigner

Winner: 38 Degrees

Highly commended: Rainforest Action Network

Best private company

Winner: Firmenich

Highly commended: National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia

Sustainability commercialised

Winner: Kingfisher

Highly commended: Timberland

Best collaboration

Winner: Marshall’s and Hadoti

Highly commended: Marks & Spencer and Oxfam

Lifetime achievement

Winner: Chris Wille, head of sustainable agriculture, the Rainforest Alliance

2011 Ethical Corporation awards judges

Mallen Baker, chairman

Charlotte Grezo, Centrica’s group director of corporate responsibility strategy

Dr Sue Konzelmann, director of the London Centre for Corporate Governance and Ethics

Simon Pickard, director-general of the European Academy of Business in Society

Rory Sullivan, strategic adviser to Ethix SRI


For a chance to be recognized as a sustainability/CSR champion, consider entering this year's Ethical Corporation Awards - full details on categories and judges here:

The Ethical Corporation Awards 2013

June 2013, London, UK

A celebration of sustainability and CSR best practice from around the world

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