In this Q&A, Ethical Corporation’s Head of US Operations Ed Long talks with Abby Maxman on Oxfam North America's top priorities for the coming year, the importance of collaboration and what transformation business needs to do to meet the needs of the customer of the future
A: It is vitally important that organizations like Oxfam meet businesses in the spaces where they gather to share knowledge and look to the future together. The private sector is a crucial actor in our society – entrusted with delivering the goods and services that allow human lives to unfold with dignity and prosperity. Companies have the power to impact lives, not only of their employees through workplace practices, but in their broader shaping of the world and culture we live in. This is a power that can have positive or negative outcomes. Events like RBS West bring together a diverse and talented cross-section of corporate America, including some of the most innovative and forward-looking leaders building solutions to our shared challenges. I am honored and excited for the opportunity to share our work and our vision with such leaders.
Q: What are your top priorities in 2019/20? And why are they important to your team?
A: 1. A key priority for Oxfam is addressing the complex and destabilizing challenges of widespread inequality in our society. How can engaging with companies help solve this issue? It entails moving away from short-term goals to a long-term view of true sustainability and long-term value. Workers should have the dignity they deserve in operations and supply chains, which means they should be paid living wages, work in decent and safe conditions, and have a voice in their workplace. It means making sure we have workplaces with diversity in leadership positions, giving stakeholders beyond investors a say in how companies operate, and encouraging companies to view paying their fair share of taxes not as a penalty but as an investment in their businesses and the broader infrastructure that sustains their markets. In short, we need to build a kind of enlightened capitalism that is accountable and truly sustainable – and companies need to be in the lead in demanding and creating it.
2. One concrete priority we are working on to advance this goal is creating a new market institution to help incentivize companies to raise the wages of their US employees and on-site subcontractors to a recognized living standard and celebrating those who do so. In doing so, we will create clarity on this issue for employers, investors and consumers alike. This year and next, my team is working to finalize a robust and transparent standard-setting process for this US Living Wage Initiative.
3. Another key priority is our ongoing engagement with Mars Inc. Back in 2013, we challenged Mars to address gender inequality in its cocoa supply chain and now it is a core issue that it is tackling throughout its global supply chain. Not only is Mars fulfilling its gender commitments under our Behind the Brands campaign, with several gender assessments underway in key cocoa sourcing countries, but it is also putting women’s empowerment at the heart of its Farmer Income Lab, on which Oxfam is an advisor.
4. We are eager to engage with leading companies across all the many issues that Oxfam works on, all in service of our global anti-poverty mission.
Q: How are businesses going to have to transform their operations to meet the needs of the customers in the future?
A: Customers are increasingly demanding sustainable business practices from the companies they give their hard-earned money to – and this means sustainability on more than one dimension. While we have seen positive signs of movement in the environmental space that we applaud and that must continue, too many companies are still lagging behind on issues like dignified, safe working conditions and wages sufficient to offer workers a decent livelihood; gender equality and freedom from harassment, and the right to stand up for rights without retaliation. In tomorrow’s ever more connected world, conscious and engaged consumers that are coming of age today will have little patience for excuses and exploitation – they will demand that the goods and services they pay for are delivered in ethical and sustainable ways – companies that fail to recognize this will cede their share of the marketplace to those who do.
Q: How important is collaboration to long-term cross-industry transformation? What are you doing to deliver it?
A: One of the greatest challenges to the spread of sustainable business practices is the age-old collective action problem. Who will step forward and lead, facing the headwinds, scouting obstacles, and breaking through them to allow others to follow more easily? Collaboration between companies and civil society represents the best avenue to tackle this challenge. Concretely, my team is developing a credible standard for recognizing living wage employers in the US. The group of companies that is stepping forward to lead with us on this initiative will share the burden of those headwinds, and share also the gains in retention and recruitment, not to mention the recognition of consumers, investors and advocates who know that workers deserve a decent livelihood for their hard day’s work. This kind of cross-industry collaboration is vital to paving the way for a brighter, better future for workers and employers alike.
Q: What excites you about the sustainability industry at present?
A: I am excited to see the energy and momentum that is gathering behind the core concepts of sustainability in the private sector. Companies are increasingly recognizing the need for sustainable practices, and the sustainability industry has grown to meet that need. I am especially excited to see the blossoming of a new generation of mature sustainable practices, shepherded by the diverse professionals and institutions of the sustainability industry, including the trend towards integration of sustainability and human rights into core operations, the growing understanding of the value of gender diversity and equality, and the growing certainty in C-suites that ethics and sharp business sense are by no means mutually exclusive concepts.
Abby Maxman will be speaking at Ethical Corporation's Responsible Business Summit West 2019 in San Diego 9-10 October. She will join 250+ CEOs, investors and heads of business to share practical ideas on how business can take the lead and accelerate action on social and environmental issues.
This Q&A has been shared in the run up to the Responsible Business Summit West, taking place in San Diego, October 9-10, 2019.
We’re in the midst of transformation. The fourth industrial revolution coupled with the necessity to reduce global warming to 1.5C requires all stakeholders pulling in one direction, with grave consequences for failure.
This also presents an opportunity for business to innovate, invest and collaborate. The opportunity to deliver technologies and circular strategies which accelerate the move to a sustainable economy, conserve the natural environment and deliver business success. Grasping the chance presented whilst simultaneously responding to investor demand to be more transparent on ESG-related risks.
The Responsible Business Summit West will challenge 250+ CEOs, sustainability leaders, Investors, government representatives and NGOs to show how they’re going to leverage new technologies and investments to deliver the blueprint for the future economy – over two days you will learn how to move from dialogue to action on the key opportunities that lie ahead.
Hear from 60+ innovators and experts driving the clean, inclusive future:
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