Al Gore brings message of sustainability to Toronto

Former U.S. vice-president tells employers at the 2007 Top Employer Summit at the Four Seasons to focus on value of intangibles
By Todd Humber
||Last Updated: 04/04/2007

When Al Gore, the former vice-president of the United States, rolled into Toronto on March 22 he came armed with a very clear message for employers.

Gore, who has risen to near superstar status in the wake of the phenomenal success of his film

An Incovenient Truth

, which recently won an Oscar for best documentary, told a standing-room only crowd at the 2007 Top Employer Summit at the Four Seasons hotel that employers have a responsibility and the ability to do something about climate change.

Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also the profitable and sustainable thing for organizations and employees. His message was music to the ears of HR professionals struggling to get employers to understand the intangible, long-term value of what they bring to the table.

“There is a big shift in the business community around the world toward a greater appreciation for the fact that the short-term quarterly report point of view misses a lot, and if a company is going to be profitable and productive on a sustained basis that means looking at some of the factors that don’t always show up on the balance sheet,” said Gore.

Gore referred to a famous saying by psychologist Abraham Maslow, that “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.”

“If the only way we recognize what’s valuable and profitable is the price tag, then the things that don’t come equipped with price tags can begin to look like they’re not valuable,” said Gore. “But the attitude of the employees and their loyalty and feeling about the company has a direct impact on turnover, retraining costs, labour productivity, the amount of creative effort they’re going to be putting in to try and lift up the company’s goals and aspirations.”

He was also critical of investors, and the negative impact they have on organizations by putting too much pressure to perform in the short term with little view for the long term.

“In my nation, 30 years ago the average holding period for stocks was seven years,” he said. “Now, the average mutual fund turns over their entire portfolio in less than 11 months.”

If the entire psychology around investing is short-term, it’s going to have a very negative impact, he said.

“The employees are not going to get the best that they deserve, the communities are not, the stockholders are not and the environment can suffer as well,” he said.

Gore then launched into his signature presentation, which was captured in

An Incovenient Truth

. Following the presentation, he urged participants to take action on climate change, which he called the biggest threat facing the world today.

He said there’s no silver bullet to solve the problem, but there is silver buckshot. A lot of different initiatives, big and small, can combine to reverse the disturbing trend in climate change, he said.

“It’s not a political issue,” said Gore. “It’s a moral issue. We can’t give up on it.”

He said the world has cured polio and smallpox and has taken on racism and segregation. It has beat apartheid, fascism and brought down the Berlin wall. It even got together to make changes to fix the hole in the ozone layer, which is now almost entirely repaired. He talked about the “greatest generation” — the ones who fought and won the Second World War.

“Now it’s our time,” he said. “There’s so much at stake.”

The world has everything it needs to start reversing the trend, with the possible exception of the political will, he said and “that’s a renewable resource.”

Gore praised the top employers, recognized by Mediacorp as being great places to work, gathered at the conference, which was sponsored in part by Canadian HR Reporter.

“I am so filled with admiration for the spirit in this room and the commitment that I can feel from the companies represented and from you as individuals,” he said. “It’s great to have an opportunity to focus on how to do well and do good at the same time and how to lift up the values that are so much a part of this dialogue here.”

Gore, who wasn’t familiar with the Canada’s Top 100 Employers list published by Mediacorp before he got the invitation to come speak, said he wished there was something similar in the U.S.

“It’s really a very healthy and positive event and process and I want to congratulate all of the companies that have been singled out and honoured,” he said. “These stories are so inspiring. I think it’s great.”

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