March 2016 - In the mid-1980s, faith-based groups pressed U.S. companies in South Africa to require fair treatment of black workers while they lobbied institutional investors to divest from that nation’s economy until it dismantled apartheid.
U.S. companies with South African interests were pressured to change not only by individual stockholders, but by the greater financial threat of a university system or municipality withdrawing its investments.
Thirty years later, such tactics are still used to demand corporate social responsibility. The Jesuits figure prominently among the faith-based institutions, unions, universities and socially responsible asset-management companies that make up the New York City-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, whose 300 members see investment management as a “powerful catalyst for social change.”
It’s a different way of getting a corporation’s attention; instead of boycotting a company, protesting its practices or withdrawing investments in it, Jesuits and other groups use their investments in publicly traded companies as a platform to leverage change.
Jesuits in the U.S. and Canada organize such efforts through the Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility, which promotes social change in corporate practices through shareholder engagement.
The thinking was, “maybe if we sat at the table, we’d be more successful,” said Mary Baudouin, who leads such efforts for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. “Once you withdraw, you lose power. There’s no conversation after the protest.”
So, instead, they file shareholder resolutions, recommendations to change company practices they deem problematic or unethical. In turn, companies must submit the resolutions to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which can dismiss them as being without merit or require them to be put to a vote at an annual shareholder meeting. Sometimes, the shareholder group withdraws the resolution in exchange for a conversation with company management. Those talks can stall and disintegrate, but sometimes they bear fruit, as in the case of Bunge Limited and Corrections Corporation of America.
Baudouin, one of the Jesuit Committee’s most practiced veterans with 12 years of experience, led a team in November to meet with representatives of Bunge Limited, a global agribusiness and food company, at its corporate headquarters in suburban New York City. The two parties met in what each describes as continuing – and fruitful – dialogue about Bunge’s water usage practices and sustainability concerns.
Only six months earlier, Bunge had taken the giant step of signing a United Nations water stewardship pledge and appointing a high-level board committee on sustainability that includes former U.S. EPA Administrator Carol Browner to work through the complexities of complying with its self-imposed pledge. Baudouin’s team had proposed they do it; after Bunge considered it, they decided now was the right time to make this pledge.
Bunge and Baudouin’s team have been meeting twice each of the last four years. “The Jesuits reached out to us and asked if they could attend our annual meeting, and we returned the call,” said Stewart Lindsay, vice president of global corporate affairs for Bunge. He said the relationship has been “consistent and constructive” because of a good sharing of perspective and information, even if they don’t agree on everything.
“We’ve learned from the Jesuits and the ICCR and we have informed them as well,” Lindsay said. The two parties have moved from a good foundation with senior management present at the first meeting, and Bunge’s willingness to meet and be transparent, he said.
Bunge buys crops from farmers from around the globe, stores and transports them and then processes them into value-added products for sale throughout the world. They had set goals in 2006 to reduce water use. “But the dialogue has helped us do more than we were several years ago,” Lindsay said.
The size and complexity of Bunge’s business means that fulfilling the requirements of the UN water pledge won’t be easy. “We deal with tens of thousands of farmers,” he said. “The complexity of that is one of the challenges.”
Baudouin’s team always includes at least one Jesuit, and at the Nov. 4 meeting at Bunge headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., William McCormick, SJ, a political scientist who’s studying at Fordham University, came along.
With the group’s consent, and before the dialogue began, he and fellow Jesuit Brian Strassburger led everyone in a seven-minute spiritual reflection on water, beginning with Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, and its warnings that water shortages will cause social unrest and war.
“I thought the Bunge people might think, ‘That’s cute. Let’s get going now,’” McCormick said.
“We were quiet. Everyone put their phones down. At the end, Michel Santos (Bunge’s global director of sustainability), said ‘oh, that was lovely. I’m so glad you brought up Pope Francis. He gets it.’”
McCormick said the dialogue with Bunge was not at all adversarial and unpleasant, as he had expected. “They seemed pretty serious about it,” he said. “It was very encouraging.”
Washington attorney Keith Vernon, a consultant to the Jesuit Conference who serves on its investment responsibility committee, said: “the Jesuit brand holds a lot of respect in corporate America. They know we operate in a trusted manner.”
He said that Baudouin, a Louisiana native, “has a New Orleans-ish way” of handling the talks. “These dialogues don’t go anywhere if there’s not a relationship of trust,” he said. “She’s good at that. Folks in the room like her and the way she presents. It’s not shaming, but truly listening, not drawing conclusions. She’s a trusted dialogue partner who holds them accountable.”
Baudouin, assistant for social ministries for the Central and Southern Province, agreed that “the Jesuit name goes a really long way.
“When (companies) get a letter from five Jesuit provinces, they’re not happy about it. They want to do the right thing.”
As with Bunge Limited, Baudouin and the Central and Southern Province are the lead Jesuit negotiators with Corrections Corporation of America of Nashville, Tenn. They’ve been in talks with CCA since 2011.
The company owns or operates jails, prisons and detention centers for local, state and federal governments, including for the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The relationship started when Baudouin’s team asked CCA to write and adopt a formal human rights policy statement that would govern handling of inmates and detainees. CCA did, and posted it on the company’s web site.
CCA has a corporate ethics and compliance officer, Scott Craddock, who reports to the company’s chief executive officer, and has his own staff. Talks at this point focus on employee training and making sure the human rights policy is implemented.
Craddock said the relationship with the Jesuit team has been constructive and beneficial. “It’s been a dialogue with a group that has good intentions.”
As for Mary Baudouin, the Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility, and the UCS Province, we’ll continue to advocate for corporate social responsibility through dialogue.
For more on this topic, see a story from Catholic News Service.
The Jesuit Committe for Investment Responsibility has recently released their annual report for 2015.
This article was written for Winter 2016 issue of Jesuits magazine, the mission publication for the USA Central and Southern Province. To subscribe, please contact us.
Cover image by stockmonkey.com, Used by permission.