Happy New Year! You thought you’d already received all of your gifts, but I still have one for you. Surprise! It’s a brand new interview! (Don’t worry; I wrapped it in recycled wrapping paper.) This is an amazing network, and I’m here to help develop an understanding of what each group has to offer, and how it’s all connected.
So, to start the year off right, I give you accomplished advocate Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director for As You Sow. Enjoy!
SB: First of all, I hope you had a pleasant holiday season, Conrad. I for one have had plenty to be grateful for. Any joyous moments you’d like to share with the group?
CM: Well, last fall we celebrated As You Sow’s 20th anniversary with a big event in San Francisco, and with thanks to the long-time support of many allies in the socially responsible investor, environmental and human rights communities.
SB: I get joy from knowing there are groups like As You Sow targeting big corporations to make environmentally and socially responsible improvements in this world. You have a long list of success stories from your work in the past. Which shareholder resolution from 2012 were you most enthusiastic about?
CM: We were excited about a proposal with McDonald’s to recycle post-consumer packaging and look at alternatives to foam cups. In response, the company agreed to a pilot project to replace environmentally harmful polystyrene foam beverage cups with paper cups at 2000 West Coast outlets. That’s a great first step, but we want them to use recycled content and develop cup recycling systems as well. I just learned that an opinion piece I wrote about McDonald’s action was the most popular story on the Greenbiz website in 2012.
I was most enthusiastic about the resolution to Kraft Foods asking the company to endorse extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging that got a strong 25% vote result in its first year. This was the first time this issue had been presented for a vote and it did far better than expected. That’s an indication that investors are paying attention to the issue of coming resource constraints for production of consumer goods as we try to provide for 9 billion people on earth by 2050, and the need to innovate now to develop better closed loop recycling systems that will make the most efficient use of dwindling supplies of raw materials.
SB: What have you learned from past efforts in reforming corporate behavior, that has informed your work today?
CM: Companies are far more willing to discuss key social and environmental issues than they were a decade back so it’s easier to get in the door and make your case. While many companies have made substantial improvements in their policies and practices, there’s still an enormous amount of greenwash and PR fluff that can muddy the waters in trying to assess a company’s commitment to sustainability. The companies are talking the talk but it’s still necessary to build coalitions and pressure companies to take action. Identifying problems and engaging is not enough; you still need to demonstrate to companies a legal or reputational risk for them to take it seriously. So despite the increased environmental consciousness by companies, market campaigns and external pressure by NGOs is in many ways as essential as it was 30 years ago.
There are many good sustainability leaders in companies who want to do the right thing, but it often becomes apparent that their views are not yet accepted by management and really woven into corporate culture and practice. If these leaders move on, policies and practices can falter. That means management never really accepted systemic changes, so it’s important to develop assurances that policies will be enforced and goals met even if the original players leave or if corporate profits take a dive.
SB: Can you describe how a shareholder resolution strategy works and why it can be a constructive tool for greater corporate social responsibility?
CM: Shareholder advocacy complements other more traditional forms of advocacy and provides another valuable tool in the global toolbox for social change. As You Sow’s approach is to engage companies as part of the social investor community, not the environmental NGO community. Much of our work is done in close collaboration with the social investor community and activist funds like Calvert, Domini Social Investments, Green Century Funds, Trillium Asset Management and Walden Asset Management. We join with allies and first seek dialogue with a publicly traded company on a given issue. If that is not successful, we file a shareholder proposal as allowed under regulations set by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that is voted on at the company’s annual meeting. Sometimes we can exert leverage to withdraw the proposal before it comes to a vote in exchange for a substantive action by a company.
Some of our notable program work over the years of particular interest to EPN members: we led the shareholder effort pressing Home Depot to stop buying timber from old growth forests back in 2000; we pressed Office Depot and Staples to develop similar policies and sell paper with high levels of recycled content. We pushed Time, Newsweek and BusinessWeek to use paper with recycled content and Scholastic to do the same for books. More recently we have engaged fast food companies like Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, Starbucks and YUM! Brands to recycle post-consumer paper and plastic packaging that is landfilled in enormous quantities.
There are various approaches to shareholder advocacy, some more engaged, some more hands-off. Our preference is to work closely with corporate management and to be patient and persistent over the long haul.
SB: You have a colorful career painted with journalism, research, founding programs, directing, analyzing, book publishing, and receiving awards. What’s on the horizon for you and As You Sow in the near future?
CM: Most of my energy in 2013 will continue to focus on engaging big consumer packaged goods companies like P&G and Kraft, and grocers like Kroger and Safeway, to accept financial responsibility for post-consumer packaging through mandated EPR for packaging laws. The environmental community has not prioritized a comprehensive waste recycling strategy in the U.S. That needs to happen starting now with packaging as we are throwing away $11 billion worth of recyclable packaging materials annually. Activists who have been working in silos on paper, plastic and metals need to work more closely together on strategy for greatly increasing recovery and recycling of materials across the board. At the consumer level, most of these disparate materials are collected together in your recycling bin and sorted or discarded by your local waste hauler. There hasn’t been sufficient attention paid to pressing for uniform, cost effective recovery of far higher levels of these materials. A new recycling collection system for public places also needs to be developed to capture materials discarded increasingly on the go by consumers at parks, convenience stores, gas stations, etc.
SB: How can people in the general public or with other non-profit organisations support your work?
CM: I’d like to specifically invite EPN members who are doing great work focusing on the best practices sourcing side of paper issues to expand that scope to the post-consumer side. It would help if they could broaden their dialogues with companies to ask what policies or commitments they have for collecting and recycling post-consumer paper and packaging. We’re doing a good job recycling corrugated cardboard but could be doing far better on many other kinds of paper and packaging.
For example, we’ve found that companies like Limited Brands, who have been successfully engaged by Forest Ethics and others to use FSC paper in catalogs, don’t want to engage yet on responsibility for paying for collecting and recycling those catalogs after consumers have discarded them. That’s essentially what EPR would mean for these companies. They have to do it in other countries, but not yet in the U.S.
SB: Many groups in the Environmental Paper Network have common elements in their vision to yours such as shifting responsibility for waste to producers, protecting human rights, protecting forests, and moving away from fossil fuels. Why is As You Sow a member of the Environmental Paper Network? Have you been able to access support from other member groups throughout the years?
CM: We are a member of EPN because we believe that collaboration is essential to long-term success on sustainability. We are all resource-constrained and so sharing of information and technical expertise is essential. Working with other members is tied to a number of factors but most often comes from a realization that changes in corporate practices can occur faster when there are multiple sources of pressure on companies. We have collaborated with other groups on technical and educational support over the years. The limited resources of members continues to be a challenge.
SB: Thanks for taking the time to give us insight into your organisation, Conrad. I hope 2013 brings many more successful changes!
Thanks for getting to know As You Sow. Please keep an eye out in February for our next featured member, NRDC.