When I graduated from 8th grade four years later I thought I bid adieux to Catholic school, green plaid uniforms, and the likes of Sister Kathleen. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that 20 years later I would be preparing for a meeting with “the Nuns” to discuss access to medicines and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But that is just what I was doing on a cold January morning, trudging through the slush in upper Manhattan looking for the offices of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility(ICCR). Fortunately, I was not donning a green plaid jumper or navy-blue knee-high socks. That would have been ridiculous.
I was working for Merck at the time in the company’s Office of Corporate Responsibility and it was our annual meeting with ICCR, which we affectionately coined “our meeting with the nuns.” It’s really a misnomer because, while there are nuns and other members of the Catholic diocese in ICCR, the coalition is a diverse group of nearly 300 faith and values-driven organizations who “view the management of their investments as a powerful catalyst for social change.” In addition to faith-based institutions, ICCR members include socially responsible asset management companies, unions, pension funds and colleges and universities. Collectively, they represent over $400 billion in invested capital.
The coalition explains on its website: "While ICCR members never shy away from making the moral case for action, our fundamental proposition as investors is that responsible and sustainable business practices -- and a strong corporate culture of ethics -- are in the long-term interest of both companies and investors."
ICCR had first reached out to Merck a few years prior, submitting a shareholder resolution pressing the company to report publicly on its efforts to expand access to its HIV/AIDS medicines in sub-Saharan Africa. This began not only the publication of an annual report on the company’s access efforts (a report that eventually morphed into a formal corporate responsibility report) but a series of annual meetings, led by Sister Judy Byron, which continue with Merck today.
The nuclear issue is not as prevalent as it was in the ‘90s. Pharma is still there, but changing; the opioid crisis has just blossomed in the past year. More broadly across industries, there is more focus than there was previously on the connection between governance and social issues. For example, we are seeing more resolutions on how management incentives tie to an issue.
MK: What issues have seen the greatest progress?
MK: As you fight for social change through corporate engagement, what keeps you hopeful?
PZ: The unexpected; when you ask a company to do something and they, unexpectedly, say “Yes, of course, we’ll do it.” This happened for example with a big oil and gas company. We were meeting with their CEO and asked him to train their drivers on the issue of human trafficking. I was shocked when he immediately agreed and, in six weeks, all his drivers were trained. Through dialogues like this we have seen change – today, there is a partnership that includes the oil and gas industry called Truckers Against Trafficking, which works to educate, equip, empower and mobilize members of the trucking and busing industries to combat human trafficking.
MK: What recommendations do you offer companies to ensure a successful dialogue?
I wish that all CEOs would: Meet every once in a while with their CR shareholders – not just with Blackrock – to hear other voices.
If I had a magic wand and could change one thing in the world it would be: That there was a pipeline of people coming into the investing field with a social justice/faith commitment. The faith community is shrinking, and we need some way to carry on the moral voice. We need the next gen of the moral voice.
The best part of my job is: Supporting people within corporations who are trying to do the right thing and figuring out how to make change happen.