Want to know what citizenship means?

Don’t ask Bob Diamond, ask consumers…

Barclays cynical appropriation of the ‘citizenship’ agenda proves that the shift towards responsible capitalism will not come from the boardroom.  But neither should we look to shareholders or politicians to bring about meaningful change.  It is a new breed of consumer and the SME’s that serve them who are drawing up the battle lines in the struggle to find a better way of doing business.

Today Barclays is holding a ‘citizenship day’ to underline the banks commitment to being a good citizen. Bob Diamond even made citizenship one of the banks ‘execution priorities’ when he took over as chief executive, but what do they actually mean by citizenship?

Unsurprisingly the ‘what does citizenship mean to us’ section of their annual report is pretty vague. But the long and short of it is that Barclays subscribes to a very traditional conception of Corporate Social Responsibility.

"Our role is to help improve the lives of our customers. We must provide mortgages, allow businesses to invest and create jobs, protect savings, pay tax, be a good neighbour in the community while also generating positive economic returns for our investors."

Bob Diamond, Chief Executive, Barclays Bank

In other words, they believe, that as a bank, fulfilling their core business activities, hiring some staff, paying some tax, providing a few grants to community organisations and running the odd volunteer day makes them a good citizen.

There is a longstanding debate about the merits of CSR.  But the zeitgeist is shifting away from CSR towards the idea of socially responsible business. Increasingly we expect companies to not just ‘give a bit back’ but to internalise the claims of society and the environment by embedding values in governance structures, supply chains, HR and operations.   Socially responsible business breaks down the distinction between business, and social and environmental aims.

 Indeed, Barclays has attempted to tap into this value shift by emphasising how its lending activities stimulate ‘growth’. But surely making loans is just what banks do?  The same goes for conducting environmental impact assessments, treating customers fairly, or most the activities Barclays are celebrating today.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Barclay’s newfound enthusiasm for citizenship is nothing more than a cynical PR push.

Clearly its not boardrooms who are going to be the driving force creating a more responsible capitalism.  But who will?

Much has been made in the media of "shareholder spring".  The though is that newly reinvigorated and emboldened shareholders will act as a restraint on corporate excess and encourage large corporations to act more responsibly.

But shareholders main interest is maximising their returns.  The current spate of shareholder revolts basically boil down to the complaint that senior staff in large corporations, and in particular in financial institutions like Barclays, have been creaming off too much of the revenues in pay and bonuses and not paying enough in dividends to shareholders. 

Although shareholder activism may succeed in ensuring a fairer deal for owners by tying executive remuneration closer to return on equity, the reality is that shareholders have no incentive to fundamentally change the way big business operates. If we want to see meaningful change in the way big PLCs, and in particular big banks, behave we cannot rely on shareholders alone.

Politicians of all stripes have also been fumbling towards a notion of ‘responsible capitalism’  in the attempt to show an electorate ground down by a stagnating economy and austerity cuts that they are not merely puppets in the grand farce of the financial markets.  Ed Milliband tried to distinguish between producers and predators whilst Cameron waxed lyrical about the ‘John Lewis economy’ but both notions remains nebulous and lack credibility.

Articulating a vision for a responsible form of capitalism is an almost impossible task for our political elite who has spent the last 20 years purging themselves of any such ideological impulses. Moreover responsible capitalism cannot be defined a-priori by policy makers. It is taking shape and growing on the ground.  The role of politicians is to respond to what’s already out there and create an environment in which best practice can flourish.

It is a new breed of consumers and the SME’s that serve them who are on the frontline of the struggle to build a more responsible form of capitalism.  For consumers, companies offer one choice in a market in which they have to balance a range of competing concerns about the world they live in. 

Consumers are not just concerned the particular product or service they purchase but the quality of the air they breathe when they walk down the street, the size of their grandchild’s future tax bill, how happy the people who serve them are to name a few.  These consumers are relating their consumption choices to wider macro level concerns and so inadvertently breaking down the distinction between being good consumers and being a good citizens.

New business models and vehicles for collaborative consumption, often facilitated by the social power of the internet, are developing to serve the needs of these consumers. They range from highly commercial bulk buying schemes like Groupon, to consumer cooperatives, through to peer-to-peer platforms and movements like move your money which harness consumer power to achieve broader social aims.

Barclays lecturing us on citizenship is more than a bad joke. If they were serious about citizenship and social benefit they should start by properly consulting with the people already making it happen.

The UK has already slipped back into recession and with the looming banking crisis in the Eurozone we have more economic woes in store. We urgently need our banks to be better citizens.  And if you don’t think Bob Diamond is the right person to make that happen then maybe its time to take matters into your own hands and move your money?

Louis Brooke works for Move Your Money UK. Find them on Facebook or Twitter.

Photograph: Getty Images

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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