In 1998, ESG/Sustainability Assurance was not a thing.

The GRI only published the draft version of its first GRI Guidelines a year later (1999), and AccountAbility was more than a decade away from publishing their first AA1000AS Assurance Standard (2009).

In Canada, I was a few months into obtaining my Masters in Corporate Social Responsibility…an MBA degree that wasn’t yet a thing where I was studying (Wilfrid Laurier University), and a degree programme within the Business School that I nearly failed because two of my three thesis adjudicators believed that there was “No business case for social responsibility.” (A statement they eventually realised was misguided).

I’d started my Masters with a question already in hand, and posed it first to Nortel Networks:

“Nortel has a reputation for being a good corporate citizen in Canada. What, if anything, is Nortel doing to protect and/or replicate that reputation in the emerging markets in which it operates?”

To cut a long story short, John Roth, the CEO of Nortel at the time, called me during a Marketing lecture at Laurier and said,

“Damn good question. We have no idea. Turkey, China, Brazil… Where do you want to go?”

I chose Brazil and spent nearly three weeks of the second semester conducting what would become my very first consulting engagement (and another three weeks in Indonesia for INCO, one of Canada’s largest mining companies at the time). My approach was somewhat thumb-sucked but designed around a basic expectation that if you pretended to be Columbo (the dishevelled detective Peter Falk played on TV in the 70’s) and asked people enough questions, they’d eventually tell you what you wanted/needed to know.

I travelled to São Paulo to establish a Stakeholder Prioritisation Matrix for Nortel do Brasil (NdB)…also thumb-sucked, but the very same process I still use…and then moved to NdB’s main manufacturing site in Campinas to figure out whether NdB had managed to establish a reputation similar to that of Nortel Canada: one in which most people believed that the company – Canada’s largest private sector employer and largest investor in Research & Development – was not only “responsible”, but investing in the well-being of the communities in which it operated.

My research led to a follow-up trip to Brazil to assist with implementing some of the recommendations I’d identified, including the establishment of a Corporate Social Investment (CSI) team, ultimately resulting in the development of projects that converted waste into materials for teaching technical skills to at-risk youth living in a home supported by the former Surgeon General of the United States (C Edward Koop), and provided empowering employment for persons with disabilities. More importantly, my research led to being hired by PWC in Johannesburg on the 27th of July 1999, my 30th birthday and my very first full day in South Africa (soon to celebrate 25 years).

Well, I’m back in Brazil.

Over the past week, a ChemEng colleague (Joslin Lydall) and I conducted an assurance site visit for a UK-based oil and gas company with off-shore platforms situated northeast of Rio de Janeiro, aligned to AccountAbility’s AA1000AS v3, Type 11 (High) assurance standard. Our visit included two days at sea and three days of in-office meetings and document reviews in a room strategically positioned to tempt us into visiting Pão de Azucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado.

Among the more direct findings related to the excellent policies, procedures, systems and controls in place to monitor, manage and report occupational health and safety incidents and carbon emissions, the most poignant observation I was able to make was that the Brazilians I engaged with this past week were clearly just as passionate about being a good corporate citizens as the group led by Mr Luiz Machado (CEO and Chairman) at NdB nearly 26 years ago.

It’s at times like these that I am forced to remember people like retired Laurier professors Scott Slocombe and Hugh Munro. Two men who were critically important to me being where I am today (physically, in Rio, and figuratively, in my career). May what I do to support the development of a next generation of ESG/Sustainability Assurance Providers as I reasonably reflect my sincere indebtedness for Scott and Hugh’s kindness to me, and their belief (unlike others) that what I was doing did “have a business case”.

This blog was published in February 2024.

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