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February 13, 2004
Book Review--What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business is Listening
    by William Baue

Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender relates the historical development of socially responsible business, revealing its interconnections and assessing its pros and cons.


The lime green and lemon yellow cover is less than soothing to the eye. The title is unwieldy and repetitious (What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers Is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business Is Listening). The lead "advance praise" quote comes from a Hollywood actor, Ed Begley, Jr., hardly an authority on social responsibility. In short, the outward signs induced dread at the thought of reviewing this book.

Luckily, these superficial externalities belie the writing inside. Author Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Vermont-based environmentally responsible products manufacturer Seventh Generation, provides an insider's knowledge of the development of socially responsible business. Co-author Stephen Fenichell undoubtedly injects the keen narrative sense, conveying the book's theses through vignettes that resemble short stories.

What Matters Most weaves a web of interconnected historical developments that make up the two main branches of social responsibility as it relates to business: socially responsible investment (SRI) and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The book begins set at a 1990 retreat of the Social Venture Network (SVN), and unravels the threads of this loose-knit group of socially responsible entrepreneurs and financiers to reveal the refractions of this community.

Wayne Silby's voice tells how he transformed the Calvert Group from a brokerage of variable-rate securities into a firm that offered one of the first broadly screened SRI funds, giving occasion for the authors to relate a concise history of SRI. Conversations with Philadelphia-based White Dog Cafe founder and proprietor Judy Wicks set forth her argument for localization, while Stonyfield
Farm
founder Gary Hirshberg sings the praises of mainstreaming and globalizing social responsibility. Such counterpoints provide balance between skepticism and optimism, setting the tone for judicious and even-handed assessments throughout the book.

The third chapter, "Risk and Reputation," weighs in its scales the question of whether CSR is mere public relations window-dressing or an authentic corporate commitment to sustainable business practices. It focuses on the year 1995, a pivotal point for Shell (ticker: RD). That year, environmentalist nongovernmental organization (NGO) Greenpeace confronted the company over both the decommissioning of the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea and the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a tribal rights advocate, in Nigeria.

Greenpeace activism convinced Shell to dismantle the Brent Spar on-shore instead of detonating it into the deep sea. Greenpeace also impressed upon Shell executives the inextricable link between oil extraction and social and environmental devastation in Nigeria, convincing the company to claim at least some accountability for the latter.

"[Brent Spar and Nigeria] were one of the best things that ever happened to us, first because we've come out of it much, much stronger as a company, and second because it accelerated a great many needed corporate developments," said Tom Delfgauuw, Shell's vice president for sustainable development, as quoted in the book.

Greenpeace eventually invested in Shell to enable it to file shareowner resolutions, risking the appearance of selling out in order to gain a seat at the table and work within the system.

This chapter then tells another story of the power of shareowner action. In 1994, Stephen Viederman of the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation filed a shareowner resolution asking Intel (INTC) to revise its Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) policy to disclose information to community organizations. This action helped establish a dialogue directly between Intel and a New Mexico grassroots organization, the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), which resulted in the company acknowledging the community as a legitimate stakeholder. Soon thereafter, Dave Stangis wrote himself a job description as Intel's manager/director of corporate responsibility, a position the authors use to exemplify this balance between the corporate priority of profit and the social priority of responsibility.

The book ends with an examination of the implications of multinational acquisitions of small socially responsible businesses, focusing on such examples as Ben & Jerry's being scooped up by Unilever (UN) and Stoneyfield Farm's buyout by Danone (BSNP). Instead of pronouncing this phenomenon positive or negative, the book considers the effects, decrying the dilution of social and environmental commitments and extolling the "infection" of big business with the social responsibility bug.

 

 
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