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by Derek Loosvelt | March 30, 2011


This morning in Lower Manhattan, Vault hosted a CSR conference and panel discussion. The rather distinguished panelists included Stephen Fenichell, a senior VP in corporate communications at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and a former speechwriter for ex-Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal; Jeffrey Hollender, author, consultant, activist and co-founder Seventh Generation; Carol Sanford, author of The Responsible Business; and Sarah Murray, a contributor to the Financial Times. Perhaps even more distinguished was the event's keynote speaker: Bank of America Chairman Chad Holliday.

At the outset of his address, Holliday, who just last year joined BofA, noted that he's not a banker but an engineer and, perhaps in attempts at endearing himself to the audience, said he's never been much of a fan of bankers.

The former DuPont CEO and Tennessee native then noted a couple of CSR initiatives that BofA and some of its 300,000 employees are currently engaged in (including something about a $20 billion credit facility for sustainable businesses) and pointed to a much bigger problem than conserving energy, recycling paper and decreasing our carbon footprints: providing clean water, food and electricity to the two billion people on the planet who wake up every day with none of those things.

Perhaps the most interesting statement Holliday made during his keynote was that since the first Earth Summit conference 20 years ago, the world (its citizens, businesses and governments) have gone backwards and not forwards when it comes to corporate responsibility and sustainable business practices. That is, we've pretty much sucked in this area, and need to do some serious work.

To that I say: I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what BofA does, under Holliday's watch, to make the planet a better place.

After Holliday's address (let me pause for a moment and point out what an excellent surname the BofA chair has; okay, let's move on) the rest of the panel spoke about various CSR issues. The discussion, moderated by Vault's CSR editor Aman Singh, was lively and fascinating (especially to someone -- that is, yours truly -- not all that versed in the world of corporate responsibility, sustainablity and the like).

What stood out most during the 90-minute discussion was the consensus on the panel that our economic system is seriously flawed. All of the panelists agreed that the way today's corporations are set up do not promote ethical or sustainable business practices. As the panelists pointed out, when a company has to answer to its shareholders with the bottom line, and it's actually illegal to make any decision that will adversely impact the bottom line, then it's nearly impossible to make any changes with regards to CSR that are deemed "drastic." And drastic changes are what's needed, according to the panel.

What also stood out was this interesting reply by the rather laid-back and upfront Jeffrey Hollender (who went tie-less and looks more like a surfer than a CEO) to an excellent question (posed by yours truly) about the current state of business ethics and if our corporations promote or don't promote ethical managers:

We've become so confused about what's right and what's wrong because we've made unethical things legal. We've said it's okay to do things even if they're unethical, and you might get fired if you don't do them. We've created a terrible quandary, and companies have incentives that encourage people to do bad things. And if they don't do them, they don't move up the level of responsibility, and they don't make more money. It's such a frustrating mess. And this issue of regaining our moral balance is a huge challenge. I don't know what the answer is, but we're bringing up kids who do bad things and think it's okay.

Sarah Murray, on the same topic, noted that the U.S. is more "rules-bound" than Europe. Murray, who is British, explained that in the U.S., rules determine what's deemed "ethical" and "unethical" -- if a certain action is not covered by "the rules" then it's okay, the thinking goes. Whereas in Europe, Murray says that even if there's not a rule governing a certain action that Europeans (at least more often than their counterparts in the States) will make the ethical decision. In other words, Europeans are less shady than we Yanks.

There were many more interesting comments and observations, all of which you can find by watching the entire event here.

(Vault CSR Conference: Reimagining CSR - Innovation, Profitability & Purpose)


Filed Under: Finance