Mallen Baker

on Thursday, 31 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Mallen Baker
Director of Business Respect & Strategic Advisor on Corporate Social Responsibility

Mallen Baker is a writer, speaker and strategic advisor on corporate social responsibility and Founding Director of Business Respect – a start-up web business that promotes CSR globally. The Business Respect email newsletter on CSR has been produced since 2001 – the first CSR newsletter of its type – and reaches a worldwide audience of around 10,000.

Mallen was formerly the development director with Business in the Community, where he was responsible for developing BITC's approach to marketplace issues, which includes how companies manage issues that arise around their core products & services and the supply chain. He produced the Marketplace Responsibility Principles working with a leadership team of CEOs from major companies headquartered in the UK.

He initiated the Business Impact Review Group - the group of 20 companies who developed a common approach to CSR reporting, and was responsible for the work of the Business Impact Taskforce which produced the landmark "Winning with Integrity" report.

Mallen has written extensively on CSR. In addition to the Business Respect newsletter, he has written widely for magazines and journals across a number of countries. He is a regular columnist with Ethical Corporation, as well as being a member of the Ethical Corporation Advisory Board. Mallen chairs the CSR Superbrands project in the UK, and is a member of the Social Marketing Standards Advisory Task Group and the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Sustainable Marketing panel. He chairs Kingfisher plc's Stakeholder Advisory Panel, and was a board member of CSR Europe 2006 - 2008.

Interview with Mallen Baker 

How did you come to be interested in corporate citizenship and in wanting to set up a personal agenda to change corporate behaviour? 

I became aware of the growing importance of global environmental issues at quite an early age. Of all those that were potentially agents of change, business showed itself to be most pragmatic and action-oriented, and open to believing that it didn’t have all the answers and could work with others. So I became involved with organisations that engaged businesses on the developing agenda of the environment – which later became CSR. 

I suppose the development of my own personal agenda on this came about because I always wanted to explore beyond the boundaries that were set. So when I set up my own website, it was because my then employer, Business in the Community, was purely UK-focused, not interested in broader issues and averse to expressing a position or opinion about the agenda. All that has since changed, by the way. Those elements were things that interested me most, and once I’d set up the website to get them off my chest, I found there was an audience for all this, and was encouraged to further develop my own writing and thinking in the area. 

What is corporate social responsibility (CSR)? How is this manifested in organizations and measured? 

Corporate social responsibility is about how companies organise their activities to have an overall positive impact on society. It is about the relationship between business and society, and the expectations that society has on business. 

It is an umbrella concept, and therefore it differs enormously across the world in how it is practiced. Increasingly, the focus is going towards how you make your money – the choices you make in your products, your marketing, your supply chain, and so on. But in many parts of the world, and particularly where there are serious issues of poverty and underdevelopment, it remains mostly understood as companies contributing to society in a philanthropic sense. The concept is much less powerful if it is only understood in this vein, however. 

By and large, it is measured by looking at what companies do in terms of their policies and processes, and what they achieve – some measures are available in terms of things like climate change emissions. But CSR is about relationships, and there are too many people out there who believe that there can be a science in how it is measured. This isn’t true, and we have a long way to go in getting better at understanding what can be done. 

What do you see as being the benefits for organizations to maintain corporate social responsibility? 

There are different benefits for different parts of the agenda. But the most common ones are to build a strong reputation with people that can influence your business, to reduce costs by reducing waste, and to increase the loyalty and productivity of your employees. These benefits are not automatic – you have to do things well, and make good decisions. But that is no different to any other aspect of your business. 

Do you believe that organizations on the whole honour CSR? Which organizations are you most impressed by in relation to this? 

No large company does everything well, but there are certainly many that do a lot of things well, and do certain things excellently. Companies like telecoms company BT and retailer Marks & Spencer have led the way on reducing climate change emissions, for instance. Wal-Mart is doing a huge amount to drive environmental commitments through its supply chain. Unilever has a great track record of driving change, whether it be by tailoring business models to the needs of the rural poor in India, or leading the commitment to sustainable palm oil, or challenging fashion stereotypes that affect self esteem through its Dove brand. 

None of these companies could be held up as angels in every thought and deed. If you need companies to be perfect before you give them credit, then that is an impossible standard. 

In terms of how women are treated in the corporate world, what CSR do you advocate for those who are marginalised and have little or no equity?

There has been some progress within the corporate world in the recognition of, and promotion of women but there is still a long way to go. Ultimately, businesses as pragmatic entities should recognise that if they marginalise women they deny their business the benefit of talent and enterprise from half of the population, which doesn’t make sense.

Everyone that believes themselves to be in a marginalised position will have their own set of unique circumstances that will change what it makes sense for them to do. But generally, the people who break through most often do it by finding ways to demonstrate their abilities, and if the barriers are too great, stepping aside and creating their own alternatives.

What is your understanding of the global downturn of 2008? What are the lessons one should learn from this in an economic society that is bound by the laws of capitalism? 

I have written about this in more detail elsewhere, but the key lesson is that the senior leadership of one, crucial business sector – the financial sector – collectively lost sight of what the purpose of their business is, and what the management of risk is about for their industry.

We can either believe that we had the misfortune that the entire sector was staffed by stupid and greedy people – which is easy to do, but pretty unlikely – or we have to accept that the system of incentives that they worked within failed us. That puts the onus on us to design a better system.

So, for instance, what is a business for? If it is to maximise shareholder returns, then it encourages high return / high risk behaviour. If it is to provide useful products that meet societies needs – and thereby make a profit and provide shareholders with a reasonable return – then there are all sorts of things you might do differently. How you measure the success of a CEO, how that CEO is compensated – these are all things currently shaped on the presumption that maximising shareholder return is what it’s all about.

That may be one of the laws of the current economic system – but it’s not like the law of gravity. It can be changed.

What are you hoping from America’s new leader, President Barack Obama?

When Obama was sworn in, he talked about a return to values that emphasised service to the community, and away from selfish consumerism. Achieving that may feel like a big and unrealistic ask – rather like politely asking a drug addict to give up their addiction and expecting them to do it – but it is the journey we now have to make.

The big issues facing us are much bigger and more embedded than a cyclical recession. We are entering an age of consequences that is the logical conclusion of the world’s former lifestyle (or aspirational lifestyle for those busy catching up but not yet there). Those wanting a bit of reorganisation to get us back to where we were before are kidding themselves. Climate change is going to force big changes on us, and the act of the forcing is not going to be pretty.

Business is one of the most powerful actors that must play its part in this if it wants to be able to thrive economically. But the government of the biggest consuming country in the world is also crucially important.