Sunday marks three years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. This disaster led to the tragic loss of 1130 lives, left 2500 injured, and sparked a global debate about workers’ rights and ethical labour standards in low-wage countries. In Australia, civil society organisations such as Baptist World Aid and Oxfam lead the charge to expose labour abuses and improve working conditions in global supply chains. But thus far the government has been largely absent form this debate and has been slow to act.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are very much the flavour of the month. Widely regarded as instrumental in the next wave of economic growth, determining the ultimate recipe for innovation and entrepreneurial success is by many considered to be the holy grail. Indeed, we are all being encouraged to become like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other hero entrepreneurs that somehow went from eating macaroni and cheese in a garage or a campus dorm room every night, to becoming obscenely rich by inventing new things we now obsessively use or log into every day.
Why are boards standing by and watching as the companies they govern take our environment to hell in a handbasket? The banks are a case in point, as researcher Martijn Boersma from Catalyst Australia, recently wrote: “While banks frequently mention risk assessments, they nevertheless continue to finance unsustainable activities.” Since 2008, banks collectively have invested tens of billions into the carbon-rich fossil fuel sector, but do not include these details in their CSR reports.
The GFC has shown that unsustainable banking activities can bring the economic system to the brink of collapse. A new report by Catalyst Australia examines to what degree banks can also cause or alternatively mitigate social and environmental harm, and what are the resulting responsibilities towards the community and the environment?
Australian companies will soon be publishing financial results, as well as information about sustainability efforts. Corporate social responsibility of the big four banks – Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), National Australia Bank (NAB) and Westpac is a continuing topic of debate following recent scandals and reports of unsustainable activities. Yet according to ANZ chairman, David Gonski, Australians ought to “stop bashing the banks” for being large and profitable. This comment should put civil society on guard.
Supply chains that deliver everyday products to our fridges and tables can link unsuspecting consumers to labour and human rights abuses. Supply chain transparency is a better answer to the issue of worker abuse than “cracking down” on visas, which can make workers more vulnerable to exploitation.