Look Back at 2019: The Difference Between Hope & Despair

By Frank Sherman

As I reflect on 2019, there was plenty of news to discourage me: wars continue in the Middle East, and nations continue the proliferation of nuclear arms; refugee and migration crisis across multiple continents; rise of nationalism and hate crimes; growing wealth and income gaps; undeniable climate crisis, water scarcity, deforestation, and biodiversity loss…not to mention the rollback of regulations and social safety nets, polarization of political discourse, and impeachment hearings in our own country. A review of the global progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals found that, despite progress in a number of areas, progress on some Goals has been slow or even reversed. “The most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most and the global response has not been ambitious enough.”

But late last night, I was sent a message that woke me up. As I looked through the Capuchin Community Services 2020 calendar, a quote caught my eye. “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts” (Alain de Botton, The School of Life, London).

I then thought of Greta Thunberg’s (Time Person of the Year) speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September excoriating world leaders for their inaction in the climate crisis, and the student March For Our Lives demanding more gun control. I recalled watching CNN’s annual Heroes of the Year Awards honoring the top 10 men and women who are making the world a better place by helping families affected by tragedy, cleaning up the environment, protecting neglected animals, and so much more. I read that worldwide terrorist attacks actual fell by 33% compared to 2017, to the lowest level since 2011. This year scientists learned to spot Alzheimer’s earlier and got a step closer to curing diabetes. China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter, is becoming a leader in electric vehicles.  

I also find hope in the work of Seventh Generation Interfaith and ICCR. We added 10 new members with the merger with the Midwest Coalition to our coalition bringing the total to 39. This year our members engaged several companies in the food and apparel sector asking them to conduct human rights impact assessments and to develop a human rights policy. We continued our work with Midwestern electric utility companies to accelerate their decarbonization plans and ensure a just transition for employees and local communities. We leveraged the Business Roundtable’s statement on the Purpose of a Corporation to promote transparency in corporate political spending and lobbying. We challenged pharmaceutical companies to base their executive remuneration policies on innovation and patient outcomes rather than predatory pricing. We challenged companies to trace their supply chains back to the wildfires in the Amazon and asked them to meet their 2020 deforestation targets. We asked food brands and restaurants to improve their nutritional profile and follow marketing-to-children guidelines to fight obesity. We hosted our annual conference, this year on impact investing, in October. Our quarterly webinars, blog articles and weekly newsletters kept our members informed on our issues and trained on our tactics.

How will you tell your story this holiday season?

Blessing to you and your family and a hopeful New Year!

Corporate America Develops a Conscience?

By Frank Sherman

There has been a lot of media coverage this week of the Business Roundtable CEOs new commitment and statement on the purpose of corporations. Leaders of companies including JPMorgan Chase, Apple, Amazon and Walmart have abandon their 40+ year sole focus on shareholders to embrace a “fundamental commitment” to all their stakeholders: putting employees, suppliers and communities on a pedestal that once belonged only to shareholders.

Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, has been an effective critic of the statement.  “I absolutely see the change. It has become socially unacceptable as a company or a rich person not to be doing good. But what many are failing to do is ask: ‘What have I done that may be drowning out any of the do-gooding I’m doing?’ ” (Fortune, Aug 19, 2019). He cites the 2017 tax bill, supported by the Business Roundtable, in which the lion’s share of the benefits ended up in the hands of the top 1%, increasing the income inequality underlying many social problems.

The ‘enlightened’ CEOs are also taking heat from the right. The Wall Street Journal editorial page was quick to criticize (WSJ, Aug 19, 2019)… “A close reading shows there’s less substance here than meets the media spin, but it’s still notable that the CEOs for America’s biggest companies feel the need to distance themselves from their owners. Yet these CEOs are fooling themselves if they think this new rhetoric will buy off Ms. Warren and the socialist left. It may even embolden them by implying that corporate rules that require a focus on achieving value for shareholders are somehow morally insufficient.”

But Steven Pearlstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, professor of public affairs at George Mason University, and author of the book Can American Capitalism Survive? has a different take from the BRT statement. His article in the American Prospect five years ago (When Shareholder Capitalism Came to Town, Apr 19, 2014) partly blamed the BRT for corporate America’s sole focus on shareholder value leading to the corruption of capitalism. However, Pealstein was optimistic about the BRT statement. “It’s important because it signals a shift in attitude in norms. That’s already occurring. It’s sort of confirming something that’s happening that’s, I think, the pendulum swinging back in the right direction, after having swung too far in favor of shareholders.” Pealstein met J.P. Morgan Chase’s CEO and chair of the BRT, Jamie Dimon, in his office last year to discuss the growing public distrust of corporations and CEOs.

When asked by PBS host John Yang if this may just be a P.R. gimmick, Pearlstein gave some practical advice that all stakeholders can benefit.  “Yes, it is good for P.R., but if they don’t follow through, if we continue to see companies that say, I’m giving up my American citizenship so that we don’t have to pay U.S. taxes anymore because our shareholders are making us do it; if companies say, we’re going to crush our unions because our shareholders are making us do it; they won’t be able to get away with that anymore.”

It’s up to us to remind these CEOs of their new found conscience!