The importance of walking the talk

In his speech at York University’s Spring Convocations ceremonies on Friday morning, Charles Hantho drew from his vast experience in the chemical and textiles industries to impart to graduates the importance of walking the talk when it comes to sustainability and ethical business practices.

Left: Charles Hantho

The former chairman, president and CEO of Canadian Industries Limited (CIL – now ICI Canada) and Dominion Textiles, and an honorary member of the Board of Governors of York University, Hantho was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from York for his pioneering work in corporate environmental responsibility.

As chair of the Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association in the 1980s, he worked to create a program that targeted the environmental accountability of Canadian chemical producers. He received the Order of Canada in 1997 for his contributions to the safe production and handling of chemicals in Canada and around the world.

Speaking to graduands of the Schulich School of Business, Hantho praised Schulich’s move to integrate the key principles of sustainability – including the impact of sustainability on developing business strategy and corporate value systems – into the school’s curriculum. “The trend toward measuring companies against the triple bottom line of economic success, environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility has really come of age,” said Hantho. “Companies can no longer think of the latter two as public relations exercises; both have become essential and integral to the assessment of business opportunities and risks.

“Perhaps this is most dramatically seen in the emerging corporate response to the implications of climate change, which is increasingly seen as the mother of all sustainable development issues,” said Hantho. “Climate change will need to be addressed not just by top management but throughout the organization.”

No matter what the business or industry, Hantho told graduands that sustainability will become an important part of the fabric of how a company’s success is measured. "My message to you as graduates is simply this: As you start or continue your business careers, take a hard look at the company you are considering joining and do your own personal due diligence on the company’s values and the embedded culture and the firm’s approach to business ethics and corporate responsibility," said Hantho.

"Don’t accept at face value the various policy statements on values and ethics. Research past practices and interview individuals you trust who have knowledge of the company because strong embedded values and the culture of empowerment will do a lot for the success of the enterprise and your career within it," he said.

When Hantho started his career at CIL he discovered a company with high standards and business ethics. CIL was a company, said Hantho, that knew the importance of good community values and ethical business practices, particularly when it came to the environment.

Left: The ceremonial hood is put on Hantho by Harriet Lewis, University secretay & general counsel, while York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right) looks on

For companies in the chemical sector, the importance of environmental stewardship and corporate responsibility became clear following the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. While Canadian chemical companies had worked to develop plans to protect employees, limit residential development close to industrial plants and put in place emergency response plans to deal with the unforseen, Hantho said the industry knew after Bhopal this would not be enough and government legislation was inevitable. The industry, while not opposed to the legislation, felt they knew more about the risks and risk mitigation and decided to put in place their own voluntary program. It was the start of an industry-wide proactive initiative called The Responsible Care Program: A Total Commitment.

"We found that limiting our risk assessment just to plants was not enough. We looked at the whole chain – from cradle to grave – from production and distribution of chemicals, to the safe handling of chemicals by our customers and their safe ultimate disposal," said Hantho. "The philosophy of safe handling of chemicals from cradle to grave was born. An industry-wide responsible care program was launched with guiding principles and each company was required to sign on to the program."

The requirement of Canadian chemical companies was not just words, said Hantho, and each company had to walk the talk. "Members signed on to initiate detailed codes of practice for each stage of production and distribution of chemicals and to expand and intensify the existing ‘Community Awareness and Emergency Response’ program – the CAER program."

Companies were required to have an open door policy to the communities they were adjacent to so as to ensure there were no secrets, said Hantho. "Now industry emergency response planning is integrated with community emergency response planning," he said. "It greatly reduced the risk of a Bhopal-type incident happening in Canada. It is not perfect and there are still incidents – usually a transportation accident. But greatly improved industry and community emergency response plans keep the human and environmental impact to a minimum."

Hantho also spoke of his experience with steelmaker Dofasco Limited in Hamilton, Ont. "In the steel industry, the norm was to battle the government over environmental regulations," said Hantho. "Dofasco took a different route with an open book approach to all of its environmental issues with the government. A memorandum of understanding between the government and company was created and Dofasco delivered," said Hantho.

Both examples offer important lessons in environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility in action. Sustainability challenges are in all sectors, said Hantho, and companies that succeed in the future must be willing to address change and act creatively.

To see an archived Web cast of  Hantho’s speech, visit York’s Convocation Web page