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What does it mean for the church to practice corporate social responsibility?
According to the ELCA Web site, it means operating on two beliefs: “God’s business involves all of life” and “God calls the Church both corporately and individually to use all that is committed to our care to practice good stewardship of the creation, pursue justice, care for people in need, and to seek things that make for peace.”
Patricia Zerega, director for corporate social responsibility, ELCA Church in Society, calls it “a long-term dialogue .... We keep bringing up with companies the many reasons corporate social responsibility is so vital.”
The ELCA Board of Pensions, which owns the stock involved, files the shareholder resolutions with companies, Zerega said. “But our office holds dialogues before and after with corporations, some of which have a goal of removing a proxy resolution before it gets to the table,” she said. “So they work with us to resolve our concerns.”
To broaden awareness of corporate social responsibility, ELCA leaders work with ecumenical partners, including Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. The ELCA also partners with the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility, which has 275 faith-based institutional investors from denominations to hospital corporations.
Lending and human rights
Zerega works closely with Sister Valerie Heinonon of the Detroit Sisters of Mercy Fund. “One focus has been on affordable housing and the desire of the housing authority for those who rent to become owners,” Heinonon said. “Pat Zerega and I have been asking banks in Cleveland and Cincinnati to drive us around and show [us] where the dollar investments are going.”
Banks are required to provide statistics for ethnicity and gender in lending areas, Heinonon said. “For example, we would get information from African-Americans who were steered toward a subprime mortgage and therefore had to pay more,” she said. “We don’t want people excluded. But at the same time, everyone doesn’t want or need or should necessarily have ownership.”
Finding affordable rental properties in most cities is difficult, Heinonon said. “There isn’t a lot of extra land and when not managed well, drugs and gangs arise. ... We’re emphasizing affordable lending for five- to 50-unit buildings. A big part of the problem is what companies and banks are going to do with respect to the current economic crisis,” she said.
Zerega and ecumenical partners also talk with corporations such as Proctor & Gamble and Colgate Palmolive about human rights issues, particularly the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, as well as how corporations divide their global presence.
“Since Proctor & Gamble has facilities in South Africa, we requested that [the company] give a report regarding the impact of HIV/AIDS on its work,” Zerega said. When Proctor & Gamble did the research for that report, she added, “they found they needed to do more HIV testing and health fairs for employees.”
Other issues include how corporations act within the workplace. “We point out to corporations and governments [that] families need health insurance plans that are inclusive, part of a business plan,” Heinonon said. “We encourage governments to direct companies toward having a plan in place.”
The ELCA and its partners have encouraged pharmaceutical companies to formulate drugs for HIV or other illnesses in ways that “physicians on the ground can use it for very young children,” Zerega said. “In the U.S. we’ve pretty much wiped out mother-to-child transmission of HIV, but that’s not the case in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of it is because women don’t know they are positive, don’t have money for the [AIDS] drugs or don’t give birth in hospitals. We keep asking companies, ‘If there’s no market for this in the developed world, what about sub-Saharan Africa, India and other places? They need these medicines for young children.”
Cost of medicines is another issue. “Sometimes patents don’t allow production of generic versions of drugs, and most medicines in Africa are generic,” Zerega said. “So our corporate social responsibility [program] asks companies to share their research with the developing world. Some do this by licensing it so a country can use it, providing no markup, or allowing a registered generic company to produce generics in a specific country.”
Helping to prevent commercial sexual exploitation is a personal mission for Zerega. She tells heads of hotel chains her story of working through college as a maid. “One day I found [explicit] Polaroids of an 8- or 9-year-old child all over the room,” she said. “The man and the child staying in the room had already checked out.”
Zerega now asks hotel management: “Can you tell me that your staff are trained—even those [cleaning staff] who do not speak English—so they know who to call to get help for a child in a similar situation?”
The ELCA, she said, has been part of an approach to major hotel chains that “all now have human rights policies that cover this issue and are developing training programs for employees.”
The ELCA was also part of efforts to get “big box stores to do something about young children buying M-rated video games,” Zerega said. “As a response to our work, [many companies] came up with a cash register prompt for ID.”
ELCA funds and investors
“We encourage groups like Lutheran Services in America, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran World Relief, and the ELCA colleges and universities to also screen their portfolios with Lutheran guidelines,” Zerega said. “There is a myth that every fund is screened, just some more so. But not everything is screened.”
The pension board’s social purpose investment program began in 1988 with $10 million, growing to $1.3 billion by Sept. 30, 2008.
John G. Kapanke, pension board president, said, “ELCA Retirement Plan members who chose social purpose funds are making a difference in real ways. ... The activities behind the social purpose funds help improve the communities in which we live and encourage corporations to be better global citizens. At the same time, members enjoy opportunities to earn attractive investment returns similar to the traditional unscreened fund choices in ways that are compatible with the social statements of the ELCA.”
Terry Mencel, the board’s communications director, said, “Of new retirement plan contributions, $1 of every $4 is invested in social purpose funds. On the investment side of those [screened] funds, our goal is to produce similar returns to their unscreened companions. But ultimately it comes down to personal choice.”
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers