A Meeting of the Minds on CSR at Ryerson University: The Nexus between Public and Private Interests

Over this week, Ryerson University in Toronto hosted the Corporate Responsibility & Sustainable Development: 3rd International Symposium. Dr. Lez Rayman-Bacchus, a Visiting Research Fellow at Winchester University and Dr. Phil Walsh of the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) at Ryerson University co-chaired the event. The sustainability focused conference occurs every two years and has previously been in London and Guangzhou. The conference is intended to be intimate and this year, it hosted 65 scholars from all over the world – Australia, UK, Indonesia, Israel, China, Italy, Columbia, the US and Canada. Invited key note speakers included Dr. Tony Andrews, former Chair of the World Economic Forum; Shaun McCarthy OBE, former Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012; Marc Rosen, Editor in Chief of the Sustainability Journal, Mike Dixon, policing transnational crime and protecting whistle-blowers, informers, and witnesses; Dr. Peter German, former Deputy Commissioner and Director of Financial Crime of the RCMP, author of Proceeds of Crime and Money Laundering; Prof. Alan Murray, Chair, UK Chapter of UN supported initiative Principles of Responsible Management Education, author of Corporate Responsibility: a critical introduction, and other texts; Peter Sturm, Director of the Centre for Safety and Health Sustainability in Canada; Cathy Hansell, President of Breakthrough Results, internationally known practitioner on safety, health and environment, author of Accelerating Corporate Social Responsibility Results: Link and Leverage Your SHE Culture.

Conference participants presented leading edge research that captured the imaginations of many of us to engage in future related research. I presented research examining the rise of a new social movement organization, and others presented on topics such as: the trade and investment relationship between China and Africa, global food safety, sustainability in mining, sustainable finance and the equator principles, corruption and anti-corruption in business, sustainable tourism, geoexchange systems, wind power deployment, international climate negotiations, agroforestry, Great Lakes remedial action, environmental emergency response, life cycle analysis of PV, indigenous governance, intergenerational equity, and the list continues.

A topic I found very compelling was one presented by Prof. Alan Murray regarding the “Circular Economy”. The best way to explain it is by way of a video that he presented, called, Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy (video below). It is a holistic and disruptive high level view addressing how we might deliver sustainable development. It implicitly suggests different business models and processes, some related to the sharing economy and full life cycle approaches that we are rapidly adopting and others that we have yet to think of and figure out. For example, we may want to think about how we could upgrade down level technologies within existing devices and machines so that they continue to be useful over a longer term, rather than adding them to a recycling process or dumping them altogether.

An underlying challenge that Prof. Kernaghan Webb of TRSM noted as a theme throughout the conference, and also related to the idea of a circular economy, is that we have very short term oriented systems, whether in the political/policy or business realms. Firms build in short term obsolescence to our products so that we may buy the next new great thing and consequently, throw away the old thing. Politicians make short term oriented decisions, related to the short terms they are allowed in democracies, and this becomes problematic for building the interconnected system (depicted in the video) related to the circular economy, that requires long term investments and multilateral trusting partnerships.

The circular economy is a fundamental paradigm shift and I will be thinking about it intensely because we currently do not have enough concrete examples of what it means. For many of us who are admitted capitalists and are comfortable with the familiarity of our system, the circular economy, while also inclusive of capitalism, seems to require innovation and models that our system does not yet incorporate. It represents a different kind of capitalism and perhaps, a better version of it, but many of us will be unsettled by it because of the radical changes it represents. However, as an early adopter of ideas supporting sustainable development, I am excited about the potential changes. My view is that this concept offers tremendous opportunities and will certainly lead to a very fruitful stream of future research. Prof. Murray has his article coming out in the Journal of Business Ethics and also a text book written with some examples. You can find his publications here.

In closing, I found this conference to be absolutely stimulating with original and thoughtful research ideas presented that were focused on sustainability topics and a welcoming set of scholars interested in supporting each other and enjoying each other’s company and ideas. To complete the conference, Dr. Walsh planned a trip for us to the Kortright Center for Conservation, just north of Toronto (See http://kortright.org/). As a child, I was taken there on public school field trips for nature appreciation and this is the educational center where I had seen my first solar cell. That event inspired me for a life time. This not only illustrates the power of education, but also the power and value of experiences and demonstrations as part of education. The Kortright Center has dramatically changed and grown over the decades since I last visited and it now includes a research center that is the Leed Platinum “Sustainable House”. Ryerson University has been a strong partner on this project and conducts research along with others here. Our guide, who showed us the Sustainable House, was a true environmentalist with an exceptional technical understanding of built environment systems. One of the messages he left us with, among many, and that I had also been thinking about previously, is the importance of community relationships as part and parcel of sustainable systems. By way of suburban sprawl and huge and inefficient homes, we have lost touch with each other. Our communities have suffered as a result. Smaller, more efficient homes, including densification and a sharing orientation lead us to connect with one another more. The question our guide posed was whether we want a higher standard of living in terms of ownership or one in terms of greater happiness – what really makes us happier and shouldn’t that be the goal? Perhaps, sustainable development leads us to choose technological solutions that, by happenstance, lead to some solutions for our social issues as well.

I would like to thank the organizers, participants and sponsors of the Corporate Responsibility & Sustainable Development: 3rd International Symposium for collaborating for the purposes of increasing the world’s happiness.