Sustainablog

This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.

17.7.04

Bay Street still laughing at the tree huggers: North American executives, activists remain polarized



Bay Street still laughing at the tree huggers: North American executives, activists remain polarized
Keith Kalawsky
Financial Post
957 words
16 July 2004

National Post
National
IN1 / Front
English
(c) 2004 National Post . All Rights Reserved.

There are scads of progressive, peace-loving and tree-hugging Canadians out there, but they are few and far between on Bay Street, by the looks of it.

Last year, the United Nations assembled a group of asset managers to ponder how social and environmental issues affect portfolio management, and they published their findings in late June.

Global heavyweights in financial services signed up, including Citigroup Asset Management Ltd., HSBC Asset Management Ltd. and BNP Paribas Asset Management, which collectively oversee US$1.6-trillion.

But the Canadian member of the group was not who you'd expect: a big, bank-owned asset manager, or even one of the large, independent fund companies.

Instead, it was tiny Acuity Investment Management, a Toronto-based firm that adheres to a socially-conscious and environmentally-friendly investing policy in about 20% of its funds.

Acuity is the 28th-largest mutual fund company in Canada, with about $925-million in retail assets under management (overall, it handles about $3-billion). By comparison, RBC Asset Management manages $42-billion, IGI Financial Inc. has $79-billion and Aim Trimark Investments tends to $40.5-billion.

Acuity's involvement in the study underscores the stubbornly huge difference of opinion between European and North American institutional investors on the importance of social and environmental factors.

Overseas, investment analysts and portfolio managers are starting to take such risks more seriously. But in North America, all we have is a hostile debate between social and environmental activists labelled as shrill, Birkenstock-wearing nutbars, and financial executives branded as heartless corporate conspirators.

"The whole ethical debate in Canada is one that either opens doors or shuts doors, but it doesn't really progress the discussion that far," says Martin Grosskopf, an investment analyst at Acuity and member of the UN group. All he wants to do is push the debate beyond dysfunctional name-calling and stereotypes. This is an admirable but lofty goal.

"Unfortunately, sometimes in the U.S. it becomes a confrontational issue, where in Europe it is more of a collaborative dialogue," says Don Rolfe, chief executive of Credential Financial Inc. and Ethical Funds Inc. in Vancouver.

Step one is showing the investment community that social and environmental issues can have a material impact on companies and their shareholders. Step two is convincing institutional investors, including the big pension funds, because they carry far more clout than retail investors.

"Certainly, in Canada, the argument has to be made is a financial argument, that these issues actually make sense," Mr. Grosskopf said.

For instance, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, which manages $76-billion, has said it won't spend time or money on any kind of social or environmental agenda because there's no proof it boosts returns for its members. Teachers' is not alone in its skepticism.

The trouble is, most research on this issue has been done by various consultants, many with their own agendas and biases, depending on who hired them. Not surprisingly, many of their conclusions have been ignored by the Street.

To get around this, the UN committee pushed to get the investment industry directly involved in the process.

It asked analysts from more than 50 brokerages to weigh the importance of social and environmental risks in 11 industry sectors. About 20% of these firms agreed to participate -- all from Europe. No North American brokerages agreed to participate.

"European analysts were more likely to respond to these issues. The pension funds in Europe are more attuned to them and have somewhat moved beyond just considering them as ethical issues," Mr. Grosskopf says. "In North America, you still tend to have the advocates against the investment managers."

Several analysts from Goldman Sachs in Europe studied the global oil and gas industry, for example, and concluded that social and environmental issues were often critical to companies when it comes to managing assets and allocating capital. UBS studied emissions trading, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein looked at the aviation sector, and HSBC examined insurance.

"As the insurance sector is exposed to several environmental, social and corporate governance topics on both the asset and the liability side, this is an excellent case study of how environmental, social and corporate governance aspects will influence equity markets in future," noted Colin Monks, head of European equity research at HSBC.

So why are North American analysts and investors so ambivalent?

Many analysts just don't have the background or the resources to quantify social and environmental risks. There haven't been too many accounting or MBA programs offering courses on science or social issues. And large institutional investors, such as pension funds, are still understandably hesitant to change their approaches to investing because they face significant pressure to generate adequate returns for their investors. Already limited to investing 30% of their assets outside Canada, large institutional players balk at any more restrictions that would shrink their already small pool of potential investments.

If there is a proven link made between investment returns and ethical or socially-responsible investing, this attitude might change.

In the U.S., the New York Society of Security Analysts has created a committee to look at how they can incorporate social and environmental issues into their analysis. Mr. Grosskopf would like to set up the same thing in Canada, but he's still looking for the right venue.

"If you want to have some impact in the mainstream, it has to be a financial discussion. There's been a barrier that's been erected around the discussion in Canada and we're certainly interested in getting it up to a higher level."

Social responsibility in business 'reaches limit'



Social responsibility in business 'reaches limit'
Kit Bingham
423 words
11 July 2004

Financial News
English
(c) 2004 Financial News Ltd. All rights reserved.

Companies have made substantial advances on corporate social responsibility but are bumping up against limits to further progress, according to a new report."The efforts of business, in combination with government and civil society, are quite simply being outpaced by the problems. It's time for change," said Sustainability, the sustainable development consultancy and publisher of the Gearing Up report.

Companies have made significant efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but global emissions have increased nearly 9% since 1990 against a 60% reduction target, it pointed out. Positive steps by business are undermined by lobbying against effective action in other areas. "Industry or corporate public affairs activities are often at odds with the declared corporate responsibility initiatives of the same business," said Sustainability.

The report argued that the public backlash against globalisation will continue to grow unless business can demonstrate that opening up markets brings economic and social benefits to developing countries. "Business is generally encouraged to stay out of politics but the challenge business leaders face is increasingly political," Sustainability said.

John Elkington, chairman of the consultancy, said: "It's uncomfortable but the corporate responsibility movement stands at a watershed. If we want the benefits of globalisation, business leaders must align their companies' lobbying with their corporate responsibility activities."

The report was launched recently at the United Nations' global compact summit of corporate executives and government officials. The UN compact is an initiative to bring companies, UN agencies and civil society organisations together to make progress on human rights, labour standards and the environment.

George Kell, executive head of the UN compact, said: "Corporate responsibility has the potential to bring about positive change on a much larger scale. But to get there, the movement will need to focus on two things simultaneously: achieving critical mass across all industry sectors and connecting private actions with public policy so root causes of problems are tackled."

Sustainability recognised that its call for greater co-operation between companies and government will alarm business leaders who fear greater regulation and those who are uneasy about greater influence over governments. The consultancy said: "To the first group, we would say stronger government policies in these areas are necessary and probably inevitable. The real issue is how we can make them more effective, consistent and predictable.

"To the second group, we would say while concerns over undue corporate influence cannot be dismissed, there is a growing need for companies to speak out in favour of policies that deal with corporate responsibility."

The Corporate Conscience and the Triple Bottom Line


Assurance
The Corporate Conscience and the Triple Bottom Line
By Glenn Cheney
1,377 words
12 July 2004

Accounting Today
12
Vol. 18, No. 12
English
Copyright (c) 2004 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Washington -- The movement has already started: the triple bottom line, or, as some refer to it, the "10-K of the corporate conscience."

And it has a fair amount of impetus behind it.

Here's the theory: Business serves several purposes in the economy. One, of course, is to generate a profit for investors. To judge from the focus of financial reports, profit is the only purpose of business.

Corporations have far broader impacts on the economy and the society that it sustains.

Corporate reports, some say, should therefore report on those impacts. One answer may be the triple bottom line.

The financial bottom line is the traditional conclusion of annual reports. It shows how the company has benefited its investors.

A social bottom line shows how the company has benefited society, an entity including customers, vendors, communities, governments, future generations and everyone else.

An environmental bottom line would show how the company has contributed to the sustainability of its environment (including the environment of its suppliers, customers, investors, communities and so on) by minimizing contamination and ensuring a sustainable inventory of natural resources.

Many companies are already producing individual variations of the triple-bottom-line concept. In some countries, financial analysts are already cogitating questions of comparability, and auditors are wondering how they would audit legally mandated non-financial reports.

Mary Tribble, co-founder of the Forum on Corporate Conscience, said that the process of producing triple-bottom-line reports actually helps companies recognize their integral role in society and the environment.

As Tribble sees it, irrelevant, untargeted do-good contributions do not fulfill the function of the triple bottom line. Charity is fine, she said, but that's not what the triple bottom line is about. A company needs to assess its relationship to society and the environment and recognize how both relate to the company's self-interest.

"In many cases, a company's giving program isn't really integrated into the way they do business and the way that their employees interact in the community," Tribble said. "It all needs to connect. If these issues remain in the corporate communications department, they will die."

She cited a Louisiana bank that was approached by an environmental group seeking help to save local wetlands. The bank president realized that his bank had branch offices in all the communities where the wetlands were disappearing. The disappearance of the wetlands would affect local economies and, consequently, the bank.

Though the bank had not caused the problem, the president realized that, for the bank's own good, it had to deal with the problem. The bank's subsequent remedial actions could be considered an "asset" that would appear in an environmental report but not in a standard financial report.

As they work toward a triple bottom line, Tribble said, companies will find themselves asking important questions that boil down to self-interest. At this nascent stage of the concept, accurate and consistent methodology is of secondary importance.

"It's about backing up and looking at the corporation in a different way and figuring out how the ways that they do business might be, for instance, leaving a footprint on the environment," Tribble said. "Are there any ways that the company does business that are somehow creating social injustice? Are there any steps that we can take to minimize it? It's all about how they do business, not just about doing good."

Tribble sees the demand for triple-bottom-line reporting coming from government, investors, consumers and the internal needs of corporations. The latter, she says, may be the most pressing and significant.

Before social and environmental bottom lines attain the external significance of the financial bottom line, they need to clear a major hurdle: They need to be measurable and standardized.

Much of the world has already moved a long way toward standardized measurement and presentation. The Global Reporting Initiative, an agency of the United Nations working out of Amsterdam, has issued an initial framework of "Sustainability Reporting Guidelines."

The guidelines are far from the meticulous standards established for financial reporting. They serve successfully, however, for companies that want to provide comprehensive narratives on relevant social and environmental issues.

Several countries and companies are using or referring to GRI guidelines. The Netherlands requires public companies to report, and it refers to GRI guidelines. France mandates sustainability reporting by corporations, but does not provide a reporting framework or principles. Australia has aligned its environmental guidance with that of the GRI. Japan has just announced that it will mandate environmental reporting and is working with the GRI to develop a compatible framework.

Alyson Slater, associate director of the GRI, said that some 450 public companies have issued triple-bottom-line reports using the GRI framework. That number is three times the number of 2002. Half of the companies are in Europe, but Japan is the country with the most companies reporting.

"The next stage will be to increase comparability across industry sectors and across companies," Slater said from her office in Amsterdam. "This will require more consistent reporting and more consistent responses to indicators. The GRI is working to ensure the tools, such as technical protocols, exist for this. Some observers predict that this sort of reporting will become more mainstream, especially as Web-based reporting develops in the coming years."

In an article on sustainability reporting, which she said is synonymous with such concepts as triple-bottom-line and corporate responsibility reporting, Slater explained that sustainable development can directly drive or limit value creation. Reporting, the article says, "can help investors distinguish companies that are efficient now and well-positioned to protect their market competitiveness from those which are headed for a bumpy ride."

The big accounting firms are seeing increasing business from consulting on sustainability reports, and participation by industry leaders indicates an interest in the concept. Samuel A. DiPiazza, chief executive officer of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has participated in a Forum for Corporate Conscience panel, and James H. Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche USA, is on the forum's board of advisors.

KPMG has formed a global sustainability services consultancy. It involves some 400 people worldwide. About a third of them are CPAs. Another third have backgrounds in corporate governance. Another third are engineers and technical specialists in fields relating to sustainability.

Eric Israel, a partner with the group, said that Europe and Japan are way ahead of the United States in developing internal systems that provide useful, quantitative information that relates to sustainability and related risk.

"Sustainable development started as a niche, but it is so closely connected to corporate strategy," Israel said. "With the current demand for more transparency, sustainable development might be an element of the answer. We're already seeing an impact on external reporting, but it can also impact the debate on corporate governance."

Israel said that he sees sustainability reports of both high and low quality. The low-quality reports, he said, come across as nothing more than public relations efforts that are ultimately dangerous to the company producing them. They provide only an image, rather than a substantive assessment of real risks.

The Conference Board, a not-for-profit business research and advocacy organization, recently issued a series of reports on sustainability. One, "The Road to Sustainability: Business' First Step," explains how the original sustainability agenda has expanded from environmental awareness to include social and economic issues. Thus the concept of the triple-bottom-line strategy was born.

"An appreciation of this interconnectedness ... also brought increased emphasis on [corporate social responsibility, or CSR]," the paper explained. "The result is an increasingly complex - if not confusing - terminology. Is sustainability the overarching concept where environment, economics and [CSR] reside (the three-legged stool concept)? ... Or is 'sustainable development' a part of [CSR]?"

The paper suggested an answer: "'Sustainability' is the desired end. 'Sustainable development' is the means of achieving that end."

Later this year, KPMG expects to issue a worldwide survey of the use of sustainability reports. Israel expects that it will reveal significant increases around the world. Copyright 2004 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.thomsonmedia.com http://www.webcpa.com/accountingtoday

Fine-tuning the art of corporate citizenship ; Author advises whom to give to, how much is too much



Fine-tuning the art of corporate citizenship ; Author advises whom to give to, how much is too much
TERESA M. McALEAVY, STAFF WRITER
679 words
15 July 2004

The Record
All Editions.=.Two Star B. Two Star P. One Star B
B04
English
Copyright (c) 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Whether your company has $500 in annual revenues or $5 billion, giving some of it away amounts to good business.

A recent nationwide survey of 515 business leaders from companies of various sizes found that 82 percent believe corporate citizenship helps their bottom line. Fifty-nine percent said it helps improve their image and reputation. The poll was done by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Corporate Citizenship, with support from the Hitachi Foundation.

But agreeing that corporate philanthropy is a good thing is a bit of a no-brainer. It's figuring out what to give - and who to give it to - that isn't so easy.

That's what prompted consultant Doris Rubenstein to write "The Good Corporate Citizen," a how-to guide, primarily for companies with fewer than 200 employees.

"What I do is give people a matrix, like a puzzle, with many different pieces on polices and procedures that can work for their company," says Rubenstein.

"When they put it all together, they've got a good basis for forming a solid corporate citizenship program."

Rubenstein worked for 25 years as a fund-raiser for such organizations as CARE and the University of Minnesota. Four years ago, she launched PDP (Philanthropy Development Programs) Services to help companies learn the ins and outs of giving.

Rubenstein recently talked about what companies should consider when being philanthropic.

Q. What are the benefits of giving?

It improves recruitment, morale, and retention among employees, whether you have a huge corporation or a five-person shop. And doing good for its own sake can't ever hurt. A Harvard study showed that good giving improves ... society, the idea being that the rising tide raises all ships.

Q. Are there other reasons companies give, such as tax breaks?

There are tax breaks, but that's minor. What motivates them is "What's in it for me?"

Q. And what is that?

When done wisely and well, being a good corporate citizen can build up an image that people respect and appreciate. It's what I call reputation insurance, where if anything goes wrong, you've got some goodwill in the community.

Q. What do you mean?

Well, the most famous example is ... Johnson & Johnson, [which] had the Tylenol scare [in 1982, when the company quickly recalled 31 million bottles after someone put cyanide into some packages and seven people died]. Johnson & Johnson had, and continues to have, a wonderful reputation as a generous supporter, particularly of medical research, both in and out of its own organization. And because they had the reputation as being such good corporate givers, they were able to rebound. When you contrast that with Firestone and Ford over the faulty tires, Ford came out with very little damage compared to Firestone, because, in large part, Ford has a foundation that does things like give scholarships to children. They had a deep well of goodwill from the public, and that helped them bounce back.

Q. What should companies consider when developing policies on philanthropy?

First, having a policy makes it easier to say "No" when people come calling - and they will come calling. It allows you to tell potential grant seekers, "Yes, we are generous, but we can't give to everybody, and we've decided to focus on this particular area."

Q. Anything else?

Research has shown that it's best if there's a connection between what you do and what you're supporting. If you manufacture widgets in New Jersey, well, supporting an animal shelter in the Everglades just because the CEO has a home in South Florida and loves animals is not going to be smart. It would be much wiser for the widget maker to support education for future widget engineers in New Jersey.

***

UNEP, major institutional investors join forces to launch new `responsible investment initiative'



UNEP, major institutional investors join forces to launch new `responsible investment initiative'
1,476 words
15 July 2004

M2 Presswire
English
(c) 2004 M2 Communications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

(Reissued as received.)

LONDON/NAIROBI -- (UNEP) -- The United Nations Environment Programme

(UNEP) will work with major institutional investors to develop a set of globally recognized principles for responsible investment by September 2005.

The new principles will protect both the planet and long-term shareholder value by integrating environmental, social and governance concerns into investor and capital market considerations.

Today's launch of the so-called Responsible Investment Initiative follows a meeting of more than 40 investors and fund managers held last month in Paris. At the meeting, organized by the UNEP Finance Initiative and hosted by Groupama Asset Management, participants proposed a global alliance of investors to guide responsible investment best practice.

The initiative is being launched by UNEP in response to this proposal and the results of a 14-month study published last month by UNEP on the financial impacts of sustainable development.

"The time is now right to develop principles to guide best practice in responsible investment decisions worldwide", said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director. "The world's largest banks have the Equator Principles to guide their actions in a manner supportive of sustainable development. We believe the investor community is now ready for similar principles to assist with the complex process of responsible investment that meets investor expectations", he said.

The global public and private investor community, which has a duty to protect long-term asset values, is a key sector in bringing environmental, social and governance disciplines to the heart of capital market considerations.

"The short-termism inherent in our markets is a critical challenge when it comes to addressing environmental and broader sustainability issues", Mr. Toepfer continued.

"Many investors, at best, view environment and social issues as a mid- to long-term concern and, therefore, of little relevance to the cut and thrust of modern capital markets.

This is why asset owners can play such an important role.

While investing in our capital markets, asset owners and their advisors are beginning to appreciate the importance of retaining a long-term view that anticipates new opportunities and threats."

Sir Graeme Davies, Chairman of the Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd, the third largest pension fund in the United Kingdom, said: "Pension funds have liabilities which last several decades so it's inevitable that the serious social and environmental issues which the UN system seeks to address will increasingly become material investment issues as well.

"The focus of the investment system -- on relative returns over the

short or medium term -- can mean both the impact of institutional

investors on these wider issues and the investment opportunities they present get less attention than they deserve. That's why I welcome principles which focus attention on material but currently `extra-financial' issues, principles which each fund can interpret and implement as it judges to be appropriate."

Commenting on the importance of UNEP's involvement, Sir Graeme said: "The UN and its sister organizations (e.g. the World Bank, OECD and IMF) have the international legitimacy and expertise to lead this work, as well as considerable clout as investors in their own right. That is why the Universities Superannuation Scheme is participating in this important initiative."

Keith Jones, chief executive officer of Morley Fund Management, agreed, commenting: "It is clear to us that success for companies focused on consistent progress over time means embracing the concept of sustainable economic growth.

And an aspect of Morley's success has been our use of SRI expertise to identify companies that are successful because they adopt environmental, social and corporate governance best practice as part of their own idea of winning. We look forward to working with UNEP on this."

Michaeal H'lz of Deutsche Bank and chair of the UNEP Finance Initiative added: "UNEP FI is the largest and oldest public private partnership between the UN and the financial sector, with 226 member companies worldwide. As chair of this Initiative, Deutsche Bank firmly believes in the potential of public private partnerships to develop and ensure governance, environmental and social performance. The results of UNEP FI's Asset Management Working Group, which form the basis for this announcement, are an example of the success of this network."

UNEP will now convene a group of major investors in a learning process to jointly explore how to best develop and disseminate the principles.

At the Paris meeting on 16 June investors also encouraged UNEP to coordinate its work with relevant international organizations including the World Bank, the OECD, the CFA institute, the International Corporate Governance Network and the Carbon Disclosure Project. Regional groups pinpointed for collaboration, included the Investor Network on Climate Risk in the United States and the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change in the United Kingdom.

The new UNEP initiative is framed in support of the United Nations' Global Compact. It also builds on the recent launch of a UNEP study that warned of a threat to stock markets if environmental, social and governance issues are ignored by financial analysts and the broader investment community.

The study The Materiality of Social, Environmental and Corporate Governance Issues to Equity Pricing was launched at the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit on 24 June in New York. To compile the study, UNEP worked with a group of 21 fund managers and brokerage houses to explore the impact of environmental, social and governance issues on share prices.

UNEP and the asset management companies (listed below), working under a public-private partnership called the UNEP Finance Initiative, concluded the work by calling upon investors, government and business leaders to embed environmental, social and governance best practice at the heart of our markets. The new initiative to develop a responsible investment approach to guide investors is a response to that call.

Note to Editors

"The Materiality of Social, Environmental and Corporate Governance Issues to Equity Pricing" is based on 11 sector reports by brokerage house analysts that were produced at the invitation of the UNEP Finance Initiative Asset Management Working Group. Copies of the report are available on the web at: www.unepfi.net/stocks

The reports covering eight industry sectors provide a rich insight into how mainstream financial analysts are tackling a range of complex new threats and opportunities in their assessments of corporate performance.

The report is a clear recognition from major financial institutions that the environmental and social components of sustainable development, as well as the economic considerations, should sit at the heart of investment and capital market considerations.

Some of the key findings include:

-- Environmental, social and corporate governance issues affect

long-term shareholder value. In some cases those effects may be profound.

-- Financial research is hindered both due to the paucity of reporting

on the part of many companies concerning environmental, social and corporate governance issues and because of insufficient disclosure of these issues in annual reports.

-- Financial research is greatly aided when there are clear government

positions with respect to environmental, social and corporate governance issues. In some cases analysts were not able to provide in-depth reports due to a lack of certainty regarding government policy.

Brokerage houses contributing sector research for the UNEP FI report included: ABN AMRO Equities (UK); Deutsche Bank Global Equity Research and South African Equity Research; Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein Europe and UK; Goldman Sachs European Equity Research; HSBC; NikkoCitigroup Japan Equity Strategy; Nomura Japanese Equity Markets; UBS Global Equity Research; and West LB Equity Markets.

The 12 financial institutions that worked with UNEP on the report include: Acuity Investment Management, Canada; BNP Paribas Asset Management; France Calvert Group Ltd., USA; Citigroup Asset Management, USA; Groupama Asset Management, France; Morley Fund Management, UK; Nikko Asset Management; Japan Old Mutual Asset Managers, South Africa; San Paolo IMI Asset Management, Italy; Storebrand Investments, Norway; ABN AMRO Asset Management, Brazil; HSBC Asset Management, Europe.

M2 Communications Ltd disclaims all liability for information provided within M2 PressWIRE. Data prepared by named party/parties. Further information on M2 PressWIRE can be obtained at http://www.presswire.net on the world wide web. Inquiries to info@m2.com.

Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson in Europe | Tel: +33 1 4437 7613 | e-mail: robert.bisset@unep.fr | Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications | and Public Information | Tel: +254 20 62 3292 | e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org | Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media | Tel: +254 20 62 3084 | e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org | Jacob Malthouse | Tel: +41 22 917 8268 | e-mail: jacob.malthouse@unep.ch | Laura Cook/Monina Villaroman | Tel: +44 (0)20 7809 8618 | e-mail: Laura.Cook@morleyfm.com | e-mail: monina.villaroman@morleyfm.com. | Jim Sniffen, Information Officer, UNEP | Tel: +1 212 963 8094/8210 | e-mail: info@nyo.unep.org | WWW: www.nyo.unep.org

16.7.04

La tyrannie du client.



La tyrannie du client.
ALAIN ETCHEGOYEN
1,157 words
13 July 2004

Les Echos
15
19199
French
All rights reserved - Les Echos 2004 Visitez le site web: lesechos.fr pour plus d´informations.

L'économie de marché est une économie dans laquelle le client est devenu une figure essentielle. Plusieurs débats publics et colloques récents m'indiquent que cette figure dégrade de plus en plus souvent sa légitimité en abus de pouvoir, et substitue le rapport de forces aux règles de bonne conduite. Les chartes éthiques n'en ont cure.

Depuis quelques années, les poids respectifs des différents partenaires de l'entreprise ont profondément évolué. Le client est monté en puissance. L'actionnaire de même. Sous la pression du chômage, les salariés ont perdu de leur importance en dépit des discours officiels et des voeux de nouvel an (« les hommes, les hommes, c'est ce qu'il y a de plus important ! ») et le rôle de la Cité s'est stabilisé autour des questions environnementales et de développement durable. Le rapport de forces se transformera à la faveur des mouvements démographiques car la baisse du taux de population active, le vieillissement de la population et les départs en retraite devraient, dans quelques années, redonner quelque poids aux salariés devenus potentiellement infidèles.

Dans la période actuelle, même si les actionnaires ont obtenu une reconnaissance croissante grâce à la financiarisation du capitalisme avec, par exemple, des distributions de dividendes même en cas de résultats négatifs pour maintes entreprises cotées, c'est le statut du client qui semble marqué par les évolutions les plus radicales. La France a mis bien du temps à intégrer le client dans ses processus de production ou de prestation. Sa tradition coloniale, ses comptoirs commerciaux, le rôle des ingénieurs ont retardé sa prise en considération. Depuis la fin des années 1980, les entreprises françaises ont à l'unisson célébré la découverte du client, même si certaines d'entre elles, au demeurant assez rares, l'avaient intégré depuis longtemps (cf. le thème du client comme étoile polaire chez Michelin).

Le principe est simple et semble aujourd'hui évident : le client fait vivre l'entreprise. Il est celui qui paye, c'est un acteur libre de choisir un autre fournisseur et il représente l'altérité dans la mesure où il est cet autre qui a une perspective différente du producteur ou du prestataire sur le produit fabriqué ou le service rendu. Ces trois ingrédients clairs et distincts constituent l'essence même du concept de client ; ils impliquent un travail de chaque entreprise sur elle-même, sur sa conception de la qualité et sur ses activités commerciales ou marketing. Avec la mondialisation et les nouvelles technologies, l'infidélité du client s'accroît puisqu'il dispose de choix de plus en plus nombreux sur lesquels veille notamment la Commission européenne en évitant les abus de position dominante.

Comme toute notion valorisée et nouvelle née, le client est devenu un maître mot et, comme tout maître mot, « il a plus de valeur que de sens » (Valéry) pour ceux qui l'exaltent. Aussi a-t-on assisté à de multiples dérives comme l'émergence de la notion contradictoire de client interne - dans certaines entreprises, les salariés sont devenus les « clients » de la DRH ou du service informatique ! - et l'aboutissement triomphal du client roi. C'est ce dernier aspect qui me semble aujourd'hui particulièrement inquiétant car cette notion déjà contestable dans sa formulation est en train de se muer dans les faits en client tyran.

Il est possible d'expliquer cette évolution en constatant la transitivité de la notion de client. En effet, dans la plupart des cas, une entreprise joue les deux rôles : le rôle du fournisseur d'un côté, le rôle du client de l'autre. Aussi la direction des achats répercute-t-elle sur ses fournisseurs les exigences du client, sur le refrain bien connu du « à chacun son tour ». Cette transitivité et cette symétrie pourraient permettre un ajustement spontané des contraintes, avec toute la magie de la main invisible, mais ce n'est pas toujours le cas : souvent les rapports de tailles induisent des rapports de forces qui produisent d'importantes dissymétries. Ainsi les PME qui ont de grands clients ne sont-elles parfois que de petits clients pour leurs fournisseurs. Ainsi des administrations, qui n'ont pas de clients - puisqu'elles ne rendent que des services publics non marchands -, mettent-elles leurs fournisseurs à l'agonie, comme le montre un rapport récent.

La liberté du client se transforme de plus en plus en abus de pouvoir. Les petites structures souffrent des délais de paiement, des modes de facturation, de l'exigence de ristournes rétroactives, de contestations difficiles à contrer, et d'une quasi-impossibilité d'entamer des démarches judiciaires ou d'exiger des pénalités de retard sous peine de perdre un client décisif. Dans les années 1980 se multipliaient encore des Salons de la sous-traitance ou des conventions de partenariat. On discutait des commandes ouvertes et des commandes quantitatives. Le ménagement des fournisseurs est aujourd'hui souvent tué par le management du client. Le partenariat s'abîme en subordination.

Les chartes éthiques et autres codes de bonne conduite sont presque toujours décalés par rapport aux questions morales effectives qui se posent aujourd'hui dans l'entreprise. Satisfaire le client et se préoccuper des actionnaires n'ont rien d'un impératif moral : c'est un calcul d'intérêt bien compris. En revanche, c'est sur les comportements vis-à-vis des fournisseurs que devrait se focaliser la réflexion éthique.

Comme l'indiquait Montesquieu, il existe une grande différence entre la monarchie et le despotisme : la première fonctionne selon des lois et règles fixes et établies, le second sans loi ni règles car le caprice est au principe de la tyrannie. Ainsi passe- t-on insensiblement du client roi au client tyran. Si la qualité est bien souvent définie comme la satisfaction du client, la tyrannie de ce dernier est insupportable pour le fournisseur. Elle ouvre la voie aux pires corruptions, aux travaux non facturés, aux engagements non tenus, aux prix assassins et aux délais de paiement excessifs. Cette dérive, dangereuse pour nos agriculteurs ou nos PME, est de plus en plus fréquente. Spontanément méfiant vis-à-vis des codes et des chartes éthiques, je ne pourrais leur donner quelque crédit que si elles mettaient au coeur de leurs textes et pratiques leurs fournisseurs trop souvent esclavagisés - l'esclave échange sa servilité contre sa subsistance, écrivait Grotius -, humiliés - ils implorent un règlement - ou simplement négligés. Mais la performance financière de l'entreprise repose couramment sur ce mépris moderne.

Et si l'on créait un nouveau prix, un de ces prix dont notre presse économique est si friande : le Prix du client le meilleur (au sens moral), élu par les fournisseurs eux-mêmes