Corporate Boards: You Can Navigate Away From Deepwater

Just 10 days before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion marked the beginning of the devastation wrought by BP's oil spill, Cone completed its new "Shared Responsibility Study," entitled: "Companies Fail to Engage Consumers on Environmental and Social Issues."

According to Cone, 84% of consumers indicate that "by listening to my feedback and ideas, I believe companies can create products and services that are a win for me, for the business and society." Furthermore, 75% say they "want the opportunity to voice my opinion to a company about its social/environmental practices and products." Exactly how would consumers convey their opinions? 70% say they'd "participate in a survey/research," and 44% say they'd "buy OR boycott the company's products."

The Cone study also shows that Americans expect companies to help solve social and environmental issues by developing new products or services (89%), changing the way it operates, such as using only sustainable materials (88%), collaborating with nonprofits and others (86%), making charitable donations (83%), and so on. Additionally, consumers expect companies to help address global issues including ensuring product safety and quality (92%), ensuring worker health and safety (92%), ensuring human rights, such as eliminating child labor (87%), preserving natural resources (84%), and alleviating poverty (62%), among others.

In my view, such global issues are so vital to a company's interests that these matters should be part of an effective board of director's strategic agenda. It is in fact boards of directors that have the ultimate responsibility for the policies and actions of companies. Corporate boards have the power and authority through their decision-making to affect world markets and economies, the environment (including water, oil, and other vital resources), healthcare, pensions, jobs, poverty, and education, just to name a few.

Boards can learn from BP that company interests and social and environmental concerns are intertwined. Failure to understand that comes at great cost. Consumers, along with shareholders, media, regulators, and watchdogs, can be a powerful force in holding boards accountable.

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