Conversation in Human Rights tackles CEO activism

Whole-panel-400The Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics held this year’s first event in the ongoing “Conversations in Human Rights” series on September 23, focusing on the topic of CEO activism on social issues.

Panelists included John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation (formerly president and CEO of Burt’s Bees) and Professor Edward Freeman, originator of the stakeholder theory and faculty member at UVA’s Darden School of Business. The discussion was moderated by Aaron Chatterji, professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The panel addressed what seems to be a growing trend in corporate leaders advocating for social change, and the blend that occurs between personal activism and a business’s
brand. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal on both issues of privacy and same-sex marriage, while Starbucks’ Howard Schultz recently took heavy criticism for the attempted “#RaceTogether” campaign.

Replogle talked about the current business climate as being one that is incredibly dynamic, and a time when many companies are examining the “why behind the buy.” Many companies strive for what is called the triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial), and compete for B-Corporation status.

Speaking from personal experience, Replogle remarked that an activist CEO needs to careful, thoughtful, and consistent, to partner with NGOs and community organizations wherever possible, and to figure out what you stand for and build a board that will get on board with that mission.

Freeman iterated that we need a “new narrative” for business, one that isn’t merely
rofit-drive, but is imaginative and allows people to make mistakes. He said that capitalism has the potential to be the greatest system of social cooperation ever invented. But in order to create this new capitalist narrative, business leaders must lead in the purpose of others and make that purpose and those values alive in their everyday decisions.

Following the panelists presentations, audience members and panelists discussed how and why CEOs choose to speak out on certain issues, what percentage of companies are actually changing their behavior, and the differences in practices between publicly-listed and privately-held companies. Panelists and participants discussed some of the ways in which business and law schools could shift understandings about the private sector – both through curricular revisions and by clarifying that companies’ legal obligations are not simply to their shareholders