Environmental and social issues can be just as vital to company success

The nosedive in Lonmin’s share value over the last week is proof that the environmental, social and human rights activities of companies are linked to their financial value.

Companies have traditionally been less willing or able to make a business case for their social obligations – to people, communities and wider society – than they have for their responsibility to the environment.

Moral commitments to the environment can often have tangible cost benefits; urging customers to switch off lights and appliances reduces gas and electricity bills for customers, while asking people to switch off taps or use the same towels for an entire hotel stay conserves water and lowers costs.

By contrast, exercising due diligence, conducting human rights impact assessments, consulting with and adjusting large scale projects to meet the needs of local communities and paying the living wage are all more difficult to sell to a board because the short-term advantages and profit-making potential are less obvious. What is obvious is that such measures can engender a significant cost in the short-term.

The solution - long-term cost benefit analysis - is discouraged by the nature of our financial markets but increasingly companies are beginning to discover that the benefits of long-term responsibility are no less tangible and significant when they arise: costs such as delays and disruptions of operations; problematic relations in local labour markets; insurance and security; reduced output; diverted staff time and, perhaps most significantly in this case, reputational damage.

This week’s events at Lonmin demonstrate that the markets understand this too.  There is an increasing recognition that environmental and social factors can have a material impact on returns and should be a greater priority for companies.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis, few would dispute the need for more forward-thinking and long-term planning from multinationals and for greater cognisance of the wider impact of business. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which forced BP to cancel its dividend for the first time since the Second World War and to report its first annual loss in nineteen years, demonstrated that environmental and social issues can be vital to company success.

Yet there remains doubt in the private sector, and particularly among investors, that Government is willing to offer the expertise, support and clarity to business about their social obligations and how to meet them. Companies who are leaders in social responsibility complain that the playing field is tilted against them, and want to see greater rewards from Government for good behaviour, and greater sanctions for rule breakers. Successive governments have failed to do this.

In May this year I tabled an amendment to the Financial Services Bill, which would have sent a clear signal to companies like Lonmin that such behaviour would not be accepted by the London Stock Exchange. In October, colleagues in the Lords will put forward similar amendments that will clarify the purpose of the stock exchange, allowing the new regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, to take into account an applicant’s respect for human rights and sustainable development in protecting the integrity and respectability of the exchange.

Richard Lambert, former Director-General of the CBI, wrote in an opinion piece for the Financial Times in June 2011: ‘It never occurred to those of us who helped launch the FTSE 100 index 27 years ago that one day it would be providing a cloak of respectability and lots of passive investors for companies that challenge the canons of corporate governance, such as Vedanta, ENRC, Kazakhmys, Fresnillo. Perhaps it is time for those responsible for the index to rethink its purpose.’

The government has been handed an opportunity to correct the market failure that led to the death of 34 miners last week. It is widely accepted that a more sophisticated understanding of investment risk – one which takes longer-term sustainability issues into account – is urgently required.  If this Government is serious about its commitment to responsible capitalism and sustainable development, both companies and their investors must be engaged in the debate and the stock exchange is uniquely positioned to facilitate this process.

Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine. Photograph: Getty Images

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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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