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Christine Loh: Consumerism is the “Elephant in the Room” at GRI Conference

Leon Kaye | Friday June 4th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Christine Loh, CEO of Hong Kong’s Civic Exchange and a longtime politician and human rights monitor, gave one of the closing speeches at the Global Reporting Initiative’s biennial conference.  Speaking to the 1,100 NGO heads, business leaders, and politicians in attendance, Loh made three emphatic points that in her view will help move the globe towards a more sustainable economy:  building trust; creating sustainability or CSR reports that actually have meaning; and last, she concluded her speech with the “elephant in the room” that no one at the three day event really addressed.

At a conference that was a small chapter of the sustainability debate that Europeans have long dominated, it was refreshing to listen to someone from Asia speak at the marquee closing ceremony.  The theme of the GRI’s conference was focused on the desire to accelerate the integration of financial and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) reporting, and here and there throughout the Amsterdam conference, I came across speakers who brought up Asia briefly.  And of course, when conference attendees did discuss Asia, it was in the context of what the world will face as Asia’s leading economies modernize—and how their governments could possibly halt or even curb greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts on the planet.

Loh confronted the question head on and addressed some conference attendees’ criticism that Asian governments and economies were slow to release data related to carbon emissions. She explained that what comes across as stalling is only natural from a society that first, values secrecy, and second, is a region that lacks a long history of collecting data.  The idea of transparency and mandating companies to examine their impacts on the planet, and people, is a foreign one.  Nevertheless, leaders in business and government will open their minds to a greater transparency if they are engaged—not coerced or threatened—by the rest of the world.

The next point Loh discussed was the use of this data in the first place:  who is going to read these reports . . . and why?  Similar to the case of many American managers, Asian executives insist on a solid business case in order to create reports.  Loh suggested that a standard be set where companies could seamlessly create a long and short version of ESG reports, leaving it up to readers which version they wanted to analyze.  But as other speakers throughout the conference reiterated again and again last week, sustainability reports are just not about the environment—they are about the impact a company’s policies have on their workers and communities.  And while Loh acknowledged that honesty is key, she hedged here:  she quickly mentioned that human rights and civic rights are “difficult” points, sounding as if she wanted to address that issue as quickly as possible and then be done with it.

Where Loh was spot on was in the last point she made:  that elephant in the room, consumerism.  She told the conference attendees that discussions focused on transparency, carbon accounting, or workers’ rights are for naught because “we are not talking about the real thing!”  Several speakers in Amsterdam mentioned the often discussed statistic that depending on how much our consumer habits continue, we are on target to devour the equivalent of anywhere from one to four additional planet Earths in the coming decades.   “How can we address consumerism,” Loh asked the audience, “when we just don’t know how to confront it yet?”

And that is where Loh shined—a mainstreaming of ESG reporting or carbon accounting just will not matter if we cannot figure out how to quench our thirst for consuming goods.  It’s a question to think about the next time a huge event wastes a cubic ton of food or we buy 10 t-shirts in different colors.  How can we all convince each other to consume smartly, or consume even less?

Editors Note: Care about the future of CSR? Check out our GRI certification in sustainability reporting July 29-30 in Berkeley, CA


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  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Consumerism depends on things being made “fashionable” and the promotion of planned obsolescence. Certain business models need to phased out, such as the razor and blade one where the shaver device is sold cheaply, or as a loss leader, to lock the consumer in and the consumable blades are expensive – same as printers and ink cartridges. An economic accounting analysis which included all the costs, such as the environmental and social ones, not just the currency ones, would generate a completely different bottom line when assessing the profitability of any business model.

    Durable items and goods, designed along lines that do not date rapidly would help. The marketing and advertising industries need to get the rocks out of their heads and start being a bit more responsible. They created and exacerbated the rise of consumerism and were handsomely rewarded for it. They now need to promote sustainable culture instead.

  • http://twitter.com/NickAPalmer Nick Palmer

    Consumerism depends on things being made “fashionable” and the promotion of planned obsolescence. Certain business models need to be phased out, such as the razor and blade one where the shaver device is sold cheaply, or as a loss leader, to lock the consumer in and the consumable blades are expensive – same as printers and ink cartridges. An economic accounting analysis which included all the costs, such as the environmental and social ones, not just the currency ones, would generate a completely different bottom line when assessing the profitability of any business model.

    Durable items and goods, designed along lines that do not date rapidly would help. The marketing and advertising industries need to get the rocks out of their heads and start being a bit more responsible. They created and exacerbated the rise of consumerism and were handsomely rewarded for it. They now need to promote sustainable culture instead.

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