How Companies Can Meet the New Demand for Fair Play

"Fair" is in the current ether.

There is the Occupy Movement, raising questions about the fundamental fiduciary responsibility of corporations and government, whether they are acting (or capable of acting) in the best interests of the public, and how to hold them accountable in any event.

There is the ongoing Arab Spring, where another form of citizen power (itself a key inspiration for Occupy) has been challenging and overthrowing regimes across Africa and the Middle East, with emerging reflections and rebounds appearing globally, most recently in Moscow, where suddenly Vladimir Putin feels the need to explain why he will again seek his nation's highest office.

In the U.K., the coalition government is promising a vote on executive pay, while Ed Milliband is trying to reframe his Labour Party leadership under a rubric of "responsible capitalism."

Meantime (as evident in the title and content of this New York Times piece: Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs), U.S. analysts and pundits are wrestling with data suggesting American social mobility is significantly less than in Canada and many European countries -- and what that means for the American Dream.

Finally, there is the perverse new influence of Super PACs in U.S. politics. I frankly can't even go there -- it just seems so antithetical to democracy -- but if you want to learn more, this Attack of the Super PACs! article in TIME is worth reading.

Free Trade or Fair Shares?

In this milieu, what might corporations do to demonstrate as much support for fair trade as for free trade?

First, I thought the pre-Xmas Wall Street Journal A Manifesto for Sustainable Capitalism article penned by Al Gore and David Blood of Generation Asset Management offered sage advice. Written from an investor perspective, it calls for "a more responsible form of capitalism, what we call sustainable capitalism: a framework that seeks to maximize long-term economic value by reforming markets to address real needs while integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics throughout the decision-making process."

The authors posit desirable benefits to companies -- higher profits, lower costs, better compliance and lower capital costs -- and "recommend five key actions for immediate adoption by companies, investors and others" which, to my ear, have a distinct "play fair" ring to them. Particularly, their recommendations on integrated reporting (greater transparency), "[aligning] compensation structures with long-term sustainable performance," and "[incentivizing] long-term investing with loyalty-driven securities" suggest a means of business decision-making and operations that tilt towards the greater good.

Second, there is the notion of "fair shares" -- something SustainAbility explored in our 2011 research on the future of the food industry Appetite for Change and which is well explained in the WWF-Oxfam report Resource Scarcity, Fair Shares and Development.

WWF and Oxfam focus on "the issues of equity and 'fair shares' for poor people and poor countries in the context of limits to resources such as land, water, food, oil and carbon space" and suggest that the "need to advocate for 'fair shares' of these resources will become increasingly central to international development."