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Ask a Vexxpert Podcast Episode 2: John Stefaniuk

5 min. readbyVexxit StaffonDecember 04, 2020
As the digital world expands our options, people are looking more closely at how businesses measure up on environmental, social, and governance criteria. In this episode, we look at how businesses can improve and communicate their commitments to the greater community with award-winning lawyer, John Stefaniuk.

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This week on Ask a Vexxpert, we’re joined by John Stefaniuk. John is a partner with TDS Law with a broad practice that includes natural resource and environmental law. Throughout his 25 years in the business, he’s gained global recognition for his work.

In all of his years of work, he has the pleasure of saying “he’s never had a client that hasn’t wanted to do the right thing.” He also notes that in today’s world, social responsibility has to be part of maintaining our bottom line as opposed to being separate from our bottom line.

To kick things off, our host, Polly Craik, asked John how he got into environmental law in the first place.

His answer? Serendipity. The managing partner of John’s firm had a client taking over a literal gold mine and John’s first task was to figure out what liabilities the client might take on. This was the start of John’s path in environmental law in the late 80s when “environmental law was just getting on the radar for a lot of people, especially in commercial transactions.” As you can imagine, he’s witnessed vast change in the field throughout his career.

On the small business front, we asked John, what are some things small and medium-sized businesses can look at to determine their environmental impacts?

It is of course industry dependent and a very complex question, but supply chains is a big one. Businesses are so connected, locally, nationally and internationally. Supply chains are something that you can’t ignore especially in times where they’re being disrupted. Global purchasers are looking at environmental stewardship as a way to provide value. If you’re a small business supplying to another business, purchasers look at your environmental responsibility and this can set you apart. Not only is examining your environmental impact the right thing to do, when you communicate this to your partners and your consumers, it can really elevate you alongside your competition.

John highlights that the environment is just one piece of a broader discussion. ESG or environmental, social and governance criteria, is a more holistic approach to addressing a business’ impact on the greater community.

Here are some examples of how ESG is measured:

Environmental Criteria

  • Air and water pollution

  • Carbon emissions

  • Energy efficiency

  • Waste management

  • Pollution control

Social Criteria

  • Data protection and privacy

  • Gender and diversity

  • Human rights and labour standards

  • Employee and community relations

Governance Criteria

  • Board members and auditing structure

  • Lobbying activity and disclosure

  • Bribery and anti-corruption policies in place

While there’s not a universal rating agency, S & P Global is a great resource. There are numerous agencies that can be hired to perform audits and provide ratings if needed.If you want to get a good sense of how a corporation measures up, you can also have a look at the sustainability reports that they publish on a regular basis.This can provide insight into who you want to work with, support, or buy from. These reports can also give business owners a sense of how to shift their own practices and employ similar measures.As business owners, we may be doing all the right things, but unless we have it documented and have accountability put in place, we may not be recognized for doing the hard work and for doing the right thing. Part of your ESG plan has to include effective communication of the work you’re doing.For businesses committed to operating in a socially responsible way, there’s ISO 26000.

It provides guidance to those who recognize that respect for society and environment is a critical success factor. As well as being “the right thing to do”, application of ISO 26000 is increasingly viewed as a way of assessing an organization’s commitment to sustainability and its overall performance.

Next up, Polly and John discuss small and medium sized businesses manufacturing products and selling it through the supply chain. What happens if a product gets into the wrong hands? How can business owners protect themselves?

Industry associations are a great resource as are trade lawyers. To find a trade lawyer, you can use Vexxit to find a match dialed in to your exact needs.

If you want to take on your own research, Global Affairs Canada and Export Development Canada are a great place to start.

John also filled us in on a case that made headlines and went all the way to Canada’s Supreme court. The moral of the story? “You have to engage your public, your community, to get the necessary social license to carry on the activity that you want to do … it's within the realm of reasonableness for a government to refuse a permit on the basis that … the community’s concerns have not been appropriately addressed.”

To keep new projects and developments running smoothly with all parties involved, John notes that it makes sense to include legal counsel on the project team, and to consider issues of engagement as early as possible. It usually ends up with a better result.

You can call a lawyer when things hit the fan and they can try and clean up what’s happened, but if you can prevent anything from hitting the fan in the first place, through dialogue and consultation, there is a better, more predictable, and less costly result.

Lawyers aren’t the only ones who can help. Consultants and planners can too. You can also connect with vetted consultants perfectly tailored to your needs at vexxit.com.

In this episode, John also fills us in on setting up shop beyond our own community. If you’re going across borders or overseas, the most important thing is to have trusted advice that’s local.

You can use the connections you have to find trusted partners in new communities. For example, John’s firm, TDS, has a trusted, vast global network through their Lex Mundi affiliation. Lex Mundi is the world’s leading network of independent law firms with in-depth experience in 130+ countries worldwide. As part of their global network, TDS provides clients with preferred access to more than 21,000 lawyers around the world – all from a single point of contact.

Global Affairs Canada also offers a number of services for businesses working beyond our borders. Housed within their consular services, Global Affairs Canada actively promotes Canadian businesses around the world.

With a seat on the National Board of Directors of the Canadian Bar Association and as a longtime volunteer with the organization, John’s work took him overseas, specifically to East Africa. There, he worked with East African Law societies in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

The project helped these communities with their plans for natural resource development. John and his colleagues shared their experience to minimize environmental impacts to the communities at large.

Polly and John also dive into social license.

“Social license is something that’s come up in the last fifteen years or so. I remember a large editorial … around 15 pages, in The Economist, stated that the only obligation of a business was to earn a maximum return for its shareholders, and “doing good for the sake of doing good” was not a legitimate corporate objective. How things have changed since then.”

One thing we’ve learned is that doing good and doing the right thing in terms of social values does impact the bottom line. It affects the corporation’s ability to attract clients and customers, obtain necessary approvals, carry on business, and develop strong relationships in the communities they’re in.

Some say you need to do all the work before the project starts, but John feels there is a better approach. You have to be flexible when you go into a proposed development. Until you’ve listened to the concerns of a community, it's going to be difficult to make a concrete plan. “If the perception is that you’re not going to be a good neighbour and that you’re going to do something that is disruptive and harmful, you’re going to be faced with opposition.” Listening to community feedback is key.

As we wrap up the episode, John talks about the increased emphasis on demonstrating diversity programs. The days are long gone where companies can say, “Look at us, we’re really diverse.”

“Now, we need to demonstrate that we’re conscientiously implementing programs that assist underrepresented groups in entering the profession and become actively engaged in firms. It’s a lot more active, it's not something that’s passive. It requires work and commitment and it generates tremendous results.” John notes that the quality of candidates that have connected with his firm as a result has been absolutely outstanding.

Connect with John Stefaniuk at TDS Law and on LinkedIn.

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