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Alumna Suzy Glucksman on Corporate Social Responsibility

Thursday, March 15, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Heather Blahnik
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Alumni Spotlight: Suzy Glucksman and Innovation in CSR

By Heather Blahnik (Madison '96, US '98, AI '99)

In order to commemorate the founding of AIESEC in 1948, AIESEC Life is highlighting innovative work by alumni at various hub events across the US.  Suzy Glucksman (AIESEC Smith, IC Organizing Committee 1988) will be speaking at the DC hub event about innovation in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), an area in which she has extensive experience.  I had the opportunity to talk with her last week. 

After college, Suzy had a traineeship in Brisbane, Australia, and then traveled and/or worked in Southeast Asia, Asia, Europe and Northern Africa before returning to her hometown of Washington, DC.  Once back in D.C., Suzy got her graduate degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). 

Following graduate school, Suzy launched her political career, first working in the offices of John Kerry and Joseph P. Kennedy II, before supporting various organizations in government relations and lobbying.  She went on to work for Oxfam, where, among other things, she drove corporate political engagement for CSR initiatives, before moving to Fontheim International LLC. As Vice President at Fontheim, she oversaw the CSR department and managed large-scale CSR projects for different clients in apparel manufacturing as well as in food security / food and agriculture.  Suzy now has her own lobbying practice.

CSR has a long history, but it has come to the forefront in the past 10 years. In fact, for more and more companies CSR has now become part of their DNA.  The Governance and Accountability Institute, which monitors and analyses S&P 500 Index® company sustainability reporting, stated that in the year 2011, just under 20% of S&P 500 companies had reported on their sustainability, corporate social responsibility, ESG performance and related topics & issues.  That percentage rose to 71% in 2013 and now stands at 82%.  This shows a steady adoption by large companies for CSR, which Suzy saw herself at Oxfam and Fontheim. 

At Fontheim, Suzy had major clients from apparel manufacturers and from the food and agriculture / food security arena. She saw how companies who initially said CSR was not a priority for them, came years later to ask Fontheim to help them set up a CSR team in-house.  In some cases, this was a reaction to a public relations issue, in other cases it was due to new management, and in still others the company realized that it was just good business.  She wouldn’t name clients or comment on any specific initiatives due to confidentiality clauses.

At the beginning of our conversation, Suzy talked to me about the work that she had done at Oxfam, which was and has been doing innovative things in climate change adaptation, for example.  Climate change adaptation is about helping people and ecosystems prepare for and deal with the effects of climate change. This is different than climate change mitigation that seeks to limit or reduce climate change.

Oxfam set up a program together with the World Food Programme and Swiss Re called the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative (R4). R4 gives farmers and rural families a way to manage some of the risks they face from increasing climate variability. The program offers households access to drought insurance and credit, develops community projects and encourages families to save.  This means that communities become more resilient to increasing climate variability and reduces the risk of poverty in years of bad crops or natural disasters.

Suzy then mentioned innovation in the garment making industry.  She explained how a major factory fire in Bangladesh in 2012 galvanized international action and proved to be a catalytic moment in CSR.  In 2012, a large fire broke out in a garment factory that led to the death of over 100 workers and injury to over 150 more.

The following year was a pivotal turning point.  The Rana Plaza building, a five-story commercial building, collapsed, killed over 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500.  It was the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry. The incident received international attention, and sparked global outrage.  Many multinational garment manufacturers were implicated, but some companies whose garments were being produced in the factory denied involvement.  However, others responded with a multi-prong approach which included compensating families affected, working to ensure that buildings were safe and educating suppliers about safe working conditions. 

In our conversation, Suzy mentioned that Gap has been a front-runner in CSR in the fashion industry and continues to lead the way. In their annual CSR report, Art Peck, the CEO of Gap, Inc., stated that “Our global scale affords us the opportunity and responsibility to make business more sustainable, not just within our own company, but across the industry as well.” Gap has initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of their manufacturing processes, such as reducing the amount of water used in making jeans, making garments with sustainable fibers and using sustainably sourced cotton.    They have partnerships with organizations like ILO Better Work, Verité and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, with whom they are working to improve their supply chain and amplify the voices of garment workers.  They also have a training program called P.A.C.E. in the factories they partner with where they have trained 65,000 women in life skills and higher education.

Before we finished our conversation, Suzy commented on a specific example where CSR is particularly relevant in the food and agriculture industry:  coffee production. Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world after oil and according to the International Coffee Organization, over 21.5m people are involved in coffee farming with 85 percent of output produced by smallholders.  

Ethiopia, which is where coffee originated from, is the fifth largest producer of coffee globally and also extremely poor.  Ranked at 170 out of 177 countries by the United Nations Development Program Human Development Report in 2005, Ethiopia was the site of a heated debate in 2005-2007. 

It all began in early 2005 when the Ethiopian government decided to trademark the names Harar/Harrar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe, regions where some of the best quality coffee in Ethiopia is produced, in order to command a greater share of the end retail price.  Trademarks were granted in the European Union, Japan and other countries, but not in the US as Starbucks had a trademark pending for Shirkana Sun-dried Sidamo.  Starbucks later chose to walk away from the trademark, allowing Ethiopia’s trademarks to be granted; however, criticism still continued as Starbucks refused to sign the licensing agreement, arguing that regional certification would be a better course of action for the farmers. 

By November 2006, the Ethiopian government, Oxfam, and Light Years mounted a coordinated effort to compel Starbucks to sign the licensing agreement.  They eventually did in February 2007, in addition to committing to buy more coffee from Africa, providing a $1 million revolving microloan fund for Ethiopia and $500,000 to CARE International for literacy efforts in the country.  Starbucks CEO Jim Donald later said, “We made a mistake. We treated it as though it was a legal issue. But it wasn’t. It was a relationship issue.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Suzy to define what real CSR looked like. She said that it was a mindset and a corporate culture that ensures that the people you work with are taken care of and are in a safe and positive environment. It is also about ensuring that corporate practices are positive in the arena(s) in which you work, whether that be in environment/climate, labor relations or working conditions.  After hearing about the examples mentioned in our conversation, I would also add that it is about having a proactive and compassionate response to issues and events when they happen.

Many thanks to Suzy for sharing her experience and taking the time to talk with me!  I can definitely see how the companies and organizations mentioned in our conversation are bringing CSR to reality and I look forward to seeing even more innovation in the years to come.



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