After Newtown: The business world's way forwardDecember 19, 2012: 1:18 PM ET
We've had the guns versus butter debate for decades, but not as deliberately as we should have, particularly outside the context of government spending. That's changing.
FORTUNE -- Cerberus Capital Management's decision to sell its ownership stake in gun maker Freedom Group is just the beginning.
We've had the guns versus butter debate for decades, but not as deliberately as we should have, particularly outside the context of government spending. That's changing. Throughout 2012, boards and both individual and institutional investors who care about responsible investing are paying more attention to social policy.
Tragedies seem to be driving some of the change. The aftermath of the Newtown shootings is the most recent example of increased scrutiny of corporations' responsibilities, but the momentum this year was already picking up. Think about the labor issues related to Apple (AAPL) and Foxconn, Hershey (HSY), and, more recently, the Wal-Mart (WMT) supply chain disaster responsible for the deaths of 112 people trapped in a Bangledesh factory fire last month.
Newtown represents "the culture we live in," says Cathy Rowan, director of socially responsible investments at Trinity Health, encompassing "public health issues that corporations need to address because it benefits them to operate in healthy communities."
Over the last decade, Rowan has worked with companies like Wal-Mart, Target (TGT), Gamestop (GME), Best Buy (BBY), and Toys 'R Us to establish policies and practices such as point-of-sale prompts to prevent minors from purchasing violent videos. She has also worked with Electronic Arts (EA) on its marketing of video games that are M-rated but seem to be marketed to kids. (The Newtown shooter apparently was a violent game aficionado.) Too frequently, these games are not only violent, she says, but include gender and racial de-valuation as well.
Mobile devices, Rowan says, raise greater concerns, and Rowan says that she confronts industry resistance when she suggests that games have a warning for parents if it includes "acts of violence that are rewarded or go unpunished."
David Schilling, senior program director at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), says ICCR investor members like Trinity are committed to working on human rights issues, whether it's in China, Bangledesh, or Newtown. "We believe it benefits companies and their long-term sustainability to be active participants in building peaceful and just communities," he told me. As a positive example of "social sustainability," he points to the work of Timberland, which he claims has promoted improved health in Bangledesh and reaped the benefits of greater worker productivity, happier families, and more harmonious communities.
Schilling points out that the recent UN guidance on human rights describes the role of business in addressing violence. In fact, the second pillar of the guidance invokes the "corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved." That's a tall order for just about any company.
Many pension funds and investment managers are still working through their own definition of social sustainability and the disciplines to enforce those definitions with the investment managers they hire. This may have been what happened with CalSTRS (California teachers' pension fund), which held investments with Cerberus that included holdings in gun manufacturers.
Investment consultants may be part of the problem as well. (Pension funds hire investment consultants to advise them on their choice of investment managers.) Just last week, sustainable investment advocacy group Ceres convened a series of roundtables in Washington DC to discuss the issues. A Ceres survey this fall showed that most investment consultants don't have the skills or inclination to assist clients who care about ESG issues.
Generations of pension fund managers have been trained to diversify at all costs, regardless of the social impact of their decisions. But this approach has failed to deliver, both to the funds themselves and to society.
Under one model of making money, capitalists make money at the expense of workers and the community, and then turn around and give that money away as philanthropy later on. (Think Andrew Carnegie.)
But others argue that the ends do not justify the means; that a life lived well means authenticity the whole way through. That's why Goldman Sachs' (GS) philanthropy efforts for small businesses in the wake of the financial crisis were criticized. They were not viewed as whole cloth.
Can we emerge stronger after the Newtown tragedy? Yes. Let's just hope we don't need any more traumas to set us more decidedly on that path.
Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.