It is called ‹Loi de vigilance› in France, ‹Lieferkettengesetz› in Germany, ‹Supply Chain Act› in the US, and ‹Wet Zorgplicht Kinderarbeid› in the Netherlands. The goal is always to commit companies and hold them liable for ecological or social violations, even outside the legal area of their own country. However, none of these right-wing initiatives goes as far as the ‹Corporate Responsibility Initiative›, which was recently rejected in Switzerland by a referendum with a narrow result. Franka Henn and Wolfgang Held spoke about this with Ueli Hurter.
How do you assess the result of the vote?
Ueli Hurter: More than 50 percent of voters voted for the initiative, but not half of the cantons. This so-called cantonal majority has not been achieved but is necessary in federalist Switzerland if one wants to achieve a constitutional amendment by popular initiative. This is a big obstacle that, from our perspective, was last overcome by the moratorium on genetic engineering in agriculture in 2005. It wasn’t successful in this case. However, the result showed that the idea of letting companies be liable for their global activities finds a majority. The small cantons that lie in the eastern parts of Central Switzerland are conservative and tend to vote against such an initiative. But the disappointment is great in Western Switzerland, as well as abroad. My colleague in the Agriculture Section, Jean-Michel Florin, said that Switzerland, as a small independent country, could have distinguished itself as a pioneer here. 24,000 international companies have their headquarters here. Conversely, political observers such as Hugo Stamm say that such a result is sensationally good because a popular majority has been achieved.
The small cantons together make up only 18 percent of the population and can still be the decisive factor here.
In fact, a voice of a small canton like Appenzell weighs a hundred times stronger for the cantonal majority than a voice from Zurich. This may be too extreme, but the principle behind it is nevertheless valuable and is part of the political culture in Switzerland. It states that the majority does not have to decide per se, but also that the vote of a minority is ‹not wrong›. This is the spirit of federalism and also of the concordance that everyone is allowed to be right – qualitatively even if he or she is numerically a minority. Once this principle has been recognized, it means that you calculate less, but ‹feel› more.
The initiative shows that the question of responsibility in economic life is moving to the forefront – right?
This is an overall civilizational phenomenon, whether in fracking in the American nature reserves or coal mines in Australia, where Siemens supplies signaling systems. Such reckless action is old school, which is no longer compatible with the zeitgeist. The initiative has been supported by many business representatives because they recognize that the economy today should no longer operate against, but with this social feeling. This is the direction in which the trend is headed. But, and I say this from the bottom of my heart: an entrepreneur needs a lot of freedom at the same time! If entrepreneurs are pressured by too many rules and stigmatized as egoists determined by the will to make a profit and the state is the good guardian, then we lose what constitutes a liberal open society. The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Sika Group, Paul Hälg, is rightly outraged that the companies are accused of unfair motives. That is why, after this vote, I expect the economy to organize itself and take the initiative on what is now taking effect as a counter-proposal.
You are a member of the Board of Directors of Weleda and are closely associated with Demeter. How committed are the anthroposophical companies here?
Demeter as a brand is a network, a structure that can almost be understood as a corporation. As Demeter, we are, of course, at the forefront when it comes to the careful use of natural resources, i.e. soil, plants, animals, and now also the climate. Where we still have a way to go is justice for all employees. In the Demeter Association, we are discussing whether we should therefore accept this social dimension beyond international standards. Specifically, how serious are we about the working conditions on a plantation in Alicante, Southern Spain, where Demeter vegetables are grown? This is not about small farmers but about huge structures that are Demeter certified. That’s where it becomes relevant! We work with countries where there is child labor. Demeter is successful in banana cultivation. But to what extent are the workers on the plantation involved in the value creation? We ask ourselves these questions.
Fulfilling this responsibility in business is one of the missions and opportunities of all people who are entrepreneurially active.
‹Ecological› alone is no longer enough?
Not when it comes to coffee, banana, or cocoa, the classic plantation cultivation in the time of the colonies, in which Europe enriched itself and the countries were literally sucked dry.
Jörgen Smit, a board member at the Goetheanum 30 years ago, was horrified to see anthroposophists with domestic servants on a lecture tour in South America. He asked his hosts in São Paulo if they also had a ‹slave›.
Yes, we had and still have domestic workers without legal status.
In terms of corporate responsibility, Weleda is much further along than the rules and laws require. The result of the vote, therefore, means for Weleda to continue to distinguish itself here with high standards, especially if it is not due to any rule or compulsion, but rather due to its own self-image. In addition, for Weleda, which is also active in the consumer goods sector with cosmetics, the brand, the image is very important, and this is reflected in the ethical standards that Weleda sets for itself. The anthroposophy realized in this way is very important for the employees and their identification with the company.
Taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions thus moves from the nocturnal to life – is this a new understanding of karma?
I believe our destiny, our karma, is now tied to the earth. Without the earth, we lose our karma. It is the substance of fate that we must seize in these decades. What is incarnated by our wheel of fate affects us extraordinarily, we feel it. What we have so far gladly shifted into the excarnated part of our existence, into heaven, the question of how we transform our weaknesses, we have to solve on this side. This is the Michaelic signature of our time. When we say that Michael is holding himself back so that we can get involved due to freedom, then I see that realized here. Fulfilling this responsibility in business is one of the missions and opportunities of all people who are entrepreneurially active. Among the initiators of the initiative are many economists, but they represent a new understanding of capital, according to which company capital also includes the earth as well as the employees and their well-being. – Translation: Monika Werner