CEOs and capitalism have had a rough few years, and few feel it more than Barry Swartz.
Swartz, an observant Jew who studies his Torah daily, was a pioneering advocate of corporate social responsibility. As CEO of Timberland, he called on his company to behave in ways that created positive impact where it did business. Timberland planted more than a million trees, cut off suppliers that did not meet environmental and fair employment standards and gave $3,000 to employees who bought hybrid cars. At one point, he responded to a Greenpeace email campaign by working with suppliers to make sure that the leather Timberland bought wasn’t coming from ranchers that were clear-cutting the Amazon rain forest.
Once, such acts of corporate social responsibility were whacky. Now, Swartz tells the Israeli daily Haaretz, businesses broadly buy into the concept. He says that’s in part why the Occupy movement makes him sad; they deny that businesses can be reasoned with. He wants to see them engage in real dialogue, and says business people will respond to it. Instead, the movement is only about rage.
I appreciate the emotion. I respect it. But if you want to hold a CEO accountable you have to create a proposition: ‘If you mistreat your workers I will not buy your product.’ A Talmudic guy would say the opposite of that comment is, ‘if you treat your workers right, I will buy your products.’
Occupy is not his main focus. Last June, Swartz sold his family’s company to VF Brands for $2 billion. That’s freed him to do the work he cares about most – “making the universe a better place.”
“I don’t think I was put on this world to be a boot salesman and I am not a boot salesman anymore. So I’d better figure out fast what I am expected to be,” he said. Part of what he’s being is acting as a social investor, helping other companies to do what he did at Timberland.
Throughout his Haaretz interview he quotes the Torah, and talks about the two-way nature of corporate responsibility.
All of us – consumers, businesspeople and regulators – need to demand more of ourselves. I believe there are three players in this. Consumers have a responsibility to draw their red lines, and to insist on them, to say, ‘We won’t do business with you anymore.’ The CEO has a responsibility to appreciate the rage and not to sit and say, ‘Unless the consumer complains, I don’t do it.’ I don’t think that’s good enough. That’s not how I ran my company. Every 90 days you have to tell people about your numbers. Not just the profit data, but also the social data. That is what I did at Timberland.
If he has his way, it will happen elsewhere, too.