Beyond watchdog: Engaging business for change

First I want to very sincerely thank my Alma Mater for the honour conferred on me this evening. I confess to feeling just a bit hypocritical in accepting it, because I have tended look somewhat askance at a honourary degrees.  But I must admit, when I learned that it was me Vic had in mind, I kind of set my lofty principles aside, and decided maybe there could be exceptions under special circumstances! The truth is: I really do appreciate this, so thank you very much.
Well, they say always start with a story, so here’s one I’ve told many times…
I take you back to the seventies, when Inco was the worst corporate villain of them all. They were the largest point source of sulfur dioxide in North America, which was the chief cause of acid rain. I was Executive Director of Pollution Probe at the time, and it had been all-out war between us and “Stinko” for years, in the media, at Queen’s Park, in the courts and in the streets.
Someone proposed an off-the-record meeting of opposing generals, in the Inco boardroom downtown. I was elected from our side, which was assembled down one wall of the room. A Senior VP named Walter Kurelek was elected from their side.
As Mr. Kurelek and I started to move toward the centre of the room, the atmosphere was tense– I felt like Kennedy meeting Kruschev. I turned to a colleague accompanying me and whispered that this wasn’t going to be easy for me, because my dog’s name was Walter. She shot me an elbow, and warned me not to say anything stupid.
When we met, Mr. Kurelek extended his hand and gave me a curious smile. I asked him what was so funny, and he said, “Sorry, but I’ve got a horse named Monte.”
The blood drained from my colleagues face, because she knew what was coming… “That’s nothing,” I blurted, “I’ve got a DOG named Walter!”
Without skipping a beat, Mr. Kurelek responded, “Well, is Walter a good dog?”
“Yes he is… And is Monte a good horse?”
“Yes he is.”
“Great,” I said, “At least we have that much in common. So let’s talk.”
That afternoon, Charlie Ferguson from Inco called me and said he had been authorized to officially inquire as to whether I really did have a dog named Walter, or was that just a smart-Alec remark I came up with on the spot? He added that word had spread within the company, and huge sums had been wagered on this issue, so a lot was riding on my answer.
I told him it was true, and Charlie gasped in relief, indicating he had just made a bundle. And when he retired, years later, Charlie Ferguson requested that his going-away gift be a framed and signed copy of a 1969 photograph of me giving the finger to Inco’s superstack in Sudbury, which had appeared on the cover of a national magazine.
You see, Inco has since committed to reduce its SO2 emissions by 96 percent, from 685 kilotons, to just 30, and to this day I’m sure Charlie is proud of that accomplishment.
End of story, but a nice segue into my  talk, whose title suggests that engaging business for change means going beyond being just a “watchdog”—a term that is very over-rated in my opinion. My colleagues at WWF have heard me hold forth on this, when I say, “We’re not WATCHdogs, we’re DOdogs!”
The whole idea of inhabiting the margins really bothers me, safely watching decisions being made by others, then commenting, critiquing or second-guessing from a distance. It’s too easy. Dare I say too academic? And it borders on self-righteous. Given what’s at stake for Nature these days, being a perpetual observer, with no real skin in the game, is no longer defendable.
I have always preferred to be at the centre of things, fully engaged with those in power, and PARTY to the decisions that the watchdogs ponder from the sidelines. Doing, not watching, is where you can take the kind of risks that make a real difference. Because, when all is said and done, more is said than done.
There are those who caution against engaging business at all. Too big. Too powerful. Amoral at best. Immoral at worst. Profit-driven and corrupting by association, to paraphrase Machiavelli.
But since the market capitalization of the world’s largest companies rivals the gross domestic product of many medium-sized countries, we have no choice but to engage business. Their operations dramatically impact the environment on a local-to-global scale, and they affect each of our daily lives. Therefore, to leave the corporate sector unaddressed would be the strategic equivalent of hiding your head in the sand.  Do you want to make a difference, or not?
So the question is not whether to engage, but how. Further, I believe such engagement is not just a matter of fending off evil. Rather, much good can come from it. To those who feel that anyone who engages business has sold out, I ask, “Just how deep is your commitment to our cause, if you won’t deal with those who affect it most?”
Therefore, I wear corporate engagement proudly, not apologetically. I take it as a measure of how much I do care, not as an indication of having lost my way.
In my experience, when challenged to do something meaningful for the environment, you can generally divide a company’s commitment into one of three categories:
1)“Our company’s policy is to meet all our regulatory commitments.”—My answer to this level of commitment is, “Well I would HOPE so!” Because, although it may involve considerable expense, monitoring, innovation and technical know-how, this really only amounts to obeying the law. What’s the alternative?  NOT to obey the law? No, I’m afraid that mere compliance does not constitute leadership.
2)“Our company will go beyond regulatory requirements, if everyone else in our sector agrees to do so as well.” To be fair, this approach does have the value of one company’s commitment possibly leveraging others to do the same—thus moving the whole sector forward. But, at best, this is conditional leadership.
3)“Our company will go beyond regulatory requirements and do the right thing, whether or not anyone else does. “ Period, full stop.  These are the companies WWF seeks out. And chances are, such companies almost prefer to be alone in their commitment, in order to demonstrate that they are a cut-above their peers. A cut-above that can translate into a competitive advantage. And if it does indeed prove to be of competitive advantage, rest assured others will pile in. But never with the same credibility as the initial pace-setter. And of course, eventually those who are not aboard become conspicuous, looking perilously like contemporary dinosaurs. The market has a powerful ability to both reward leaders and to punish laggards. I like to think of it as weeding the corporate garden.
So… ARE there such leadership companies out there?
The answer is yes, in virtually all sectors. The trick is to find them. Or more precisely, the trick is to approach the industry leaders—the big dogs who will move an entire sector if they move– and persuade them to become such leadership companies. So that’s precisely what WWF does. Here are just a few examples:
How about Tembec and Domtar, two forestry giants, who stood before the media in 1999, and supported the protection of 378 new protected areas in Ontario, with no logging? This was the largest expansion of our provincial park system ever.
Those same two companies, along with Alberta Pacific, Suncor, three First Nations and four national conservation groups, pioneered the Canadian Boreal Forest Conservation Framework in 2003. The Framework advocates protecting at least half the Boreal region of Canada, which occupies some 580 million hectares—over half the area of our country. This remains by far the largest forest conservation agreement in the world.
Tembec, Domtar and ALPAC have also led the effort to certify over 40 million hectares of managed forest to the highest international standards of the Forest Stewardship Council—more than any other country in the world. All of this, through a period of economic hell for the forest industry in Canada, when it would have been much easier to put their environmental commitments on hold.
While these forest companies were producing FSC-certified product, in order to succeed we also needed market-moving retailers to step up to the plate. Enter Home Depot, RONA and IKEA, who have given purchasing preference and consumer clout to FSC, along with hundreds of other businesses in the value chain– from printers, to banks, to public utilities.
Or how about the 25 companies WWF has signed up as Climate Savers worldwide, who have collectively reduced their green house gas emissions by 50 million tons so far? Catalyst Paper in Canada committed to an impressive 70 percent reduction based on 1990 levels, by 2010.
Loblaws, Canada’s largest food retailer, has agreed to source all their seafood, including canned, frozen, fresh, wild, and aquaculture, from sustainable sources by 2013, using principles of the international Marine Stewardship Council.
And Coca Cola, one of the largest users of fresh water in the world, is committed to a 20 percent reduction in water use by 2012. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, consider that it would save 50 billion litres worldwide.
Since our panel tonight includes representatives from the mining industry, I would cite De Beers Canada for their commitment to stay out of all barren-ground caribou calving areas in the NWT and Nunavut. Frankly, WWF is hoping that this voluntary action by De Beers might shame the federal and territorial regulators to stop encouraging mineral exploration and development in these most sensitive of caribou habitats.
Or how about the Mining Association of Manitoba, publicly supporting a roster of 42 areas totaling over 6 million hectares, which they are prepared to see protected, with no mining?
Or Inco, telling the government of Newfoundland  to go ahead and protect the Torngat Mountains as a National Park in Labrador, even though there was a promising mineral deposit right in the middle of it?
Or Falconbridge doing the same for the lakebed of what became the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area– the largest freshwater reserve in the world?
I assure you, the list is much longer, but you get the idea…
Now, does this mean that all of those companies are 100 percent green and have no outstanding social or environmental problems? Of course not. Nor do commitments in one area of their operations provide a green cloak to ignore other important obligations. But if we have to wait until a company is virtuous across the board before engaging them, we’re likely in for a long wait indeed. Better to engage them on something meaningful now, and use that as a lever to catalyze more as the next step.
Mining companies are especially problematic in this regard, as the industry writ-large has a disturbing legacy of acid drainage, tailings ponds and other toxic waste, as well as unfair exploitation of poor communities in developing countries. That legacy is still with us.
But I would argue that those days are over, at least for mining companies that want to stay in business. Their leaders fully realize they cannot go where they are not welcome. They now need both a social and environmental license to operate. For example in Canada, polices such as respecting aboriginal rights are no longer just a courtesy. This is required by Section 35 of the Constitution Act, backed up by Supreme Court precedents, and by the fact that aboriginal people now are the government in increasingly large parts of this country where miners want to operate.
In practical terms, for the mining industry this all means it is becoming impossible to establish a mine anywhere in Canada, unless it conforms to a land use plan that was initiated, developed and approved by the people who live there. And that’s how it should be.
I’d like to point out that all the corporate actions I have rhymed off were made over-and-above regulatory requirements. As such, they make some of our government commitments look embarrassingly modest.
Nor are these cosmetic changes, or greenwash, that allow a company to duck its real responsibilities. I have deliberately chosen examples where Canadian companies, in partnership with WWF, have shown leadership to accomplish something globally significant, regarding something that is at the very heart of what they should be doing.
Finally, though some of these commitments were brought about through the pressure of market campaigns by the likes of Greenpeace, an equal number were entered into through co-operative agreements because the CEO was personally and corporately committed to doing the right thing. After all,  CEOs have kids too. Robert Schad was once introduced by a federal cabinet minister as “a man who has built a successful company, despite his commitment to people and environment.” Robert interrupted the minister to say, “No, sorry, I must correct you…We have built a successful company because of our commitment to people and environment.”
That too is how it should be. And I believe that is how it already is, for those who want to survive over the long-term in today’s marketplace. Go to the right place out of goodwill, if you wish. Or go there because you were pressured, if you must. But go there you will. Or perish.
Now if I may, I’d like to close by expressing my appreciation to a few people who account for my not perishing, and the fact that I’m standing here tonight.
First to my parents, prairie-stock who taught me the value of hard work and not spending a dollar until it was in the bank and a couple had been saved. Mom is here tonight, and has been unfailingly loyal to me. I swear I could knock over a bank, and my mother would say, “I’m sure Monte had his reasons.” Thank you, Mom.
My father made it just two days into the new millennium, and in hindsight was incredibly patient with his obnoxious, know-it-all son, especially during my university days. Trained as a mechanical engineer, when asked what the heck Monte was going to do with a philosophy degree, Dad remarked, “I’m not really sure… seems I was taught how to build a table, whereas Monte is still asking ‘What is a table?”’ Thank you, Dad.
To my wife Sherry, my kids Robin and Doug, and all the rest of my family—thanks so much for rafting along with me. Sorry about all the missed birthdays, anniversaries and even graduations, when I gave greater priority to my work. I can’t tell you how much I regret those choices now.
Thanks to my professional colleagues over the last forty-plus years, to my friends, teachers, mentors, heroes, and especially to those staff at WWF who toil out of the limelight, but upon whom those of us up-front totally depend.
Finally, I want to refer back to what has fundamentally kept me in this game, through thick and thin…
WWF’s highest recognition goes to those who have made what we call a Gift to the Earth. Well, tonight I want to express my profound appreciation for the gift of the Earth.
I’m not exactly sure who to thank for this, but I know for sure we should be thankful. Some say we should thank God, the Creator, Nature or Evolution. I’ve always found it passing strange that creationists feel that Evolution takes the miracle out of life, when every day a hundred billion biological miracles animate this world and account for there being any life at all.
In fact, what we call Life is not so much a property inherent in individual living things, as it is a gift from the surround, from our environment, ultimately from our home planet. That planet constitutes not just a life-support system, but a life-conveying system. So complex and interconnected. So sustaining and forgiving (up to a point). So inspiring and beautiful. And nowhere moreso than the geography and landscapes of Canada. You and I would literally have no life apart from it.
I can’t help thinking that if companies tapped into this, and realized that our living planet is much more than just stock or inventory to be mined, refined, bought and sold—if that really sunk in, then we would see an even faster change in how they conduct themselves.
In any case, I feel very fortunate to be living here in Canada, here on Earth, when I am. Because it is a crucial time when defending our planet is historically urgent. My work hasn’t been so much a job, or a task, or even a calling that deserves to be rewarded by honourary degrees. It has been a privilege.
So in closing, thank you again to the University for this honour. It’s very nice to be the new “Dr. Hummel.” And as a special dispensation for everyone in this room—but for you only—each of you may continue to address me as “Monte.” As we philosophers like to say, I may be the necessary condition, but the rest of you are the sufficient condition that made this evening possible. In other words, without you, I wouldn’t be here.
Mahsi Cho. Matna. Merci. Thank you.