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Feature Writer
Bernard Simon is a freelance writer who previously spent 17 years as Canada correspondent for the Financial Times. He has also been a regular correspondent for the New York Times, The Economist and US News & World Report, among others.

Heroes & zeros: Volkswagen and Vale

Scandal-plagued VW launches ambitious commitment to EVs, while Vale faces fallout from dam collapse

For the past three years in a row, Volkswagen has sold more vehicles than any other carmaker on the planet. Yet that achievement has won it little applause.

The German carmaker’s profits and share price have languished, and the sales numbers have been overshadowed by one of the most damaging scandals in corporate history: accusations that it installed illegal software in its diesel models to circumvent tightening emission rules. VW, whose brands also include Audi and Porsche, has paid billions of dollars in fines and compensation.

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Heroes and zeros: Vanguard’s John Bogle and Postmedia’s Paul Godfrey

Hero: Vanguard founder John Bogle

 

For years, small investors measured their portfolios’ performance by little more than day-to-day swings in share prices. Far too many entrusted those portfolios to conflicted financial advisors, and relied on friends for hot tips.

Times have changed. Millions of retail investors – though by no means all – have come to appreciate that the dartboard approach invariably produces poorer returns than a basket of reputable stocks held year in and year out. Many now take the time to compare fees charged by mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and to ask questions about financial advisors’ independence, and their fees.

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Heroes & Zeros: Seychelles vs. Facebook

When you lose faith in Facebook for good, you can always look to an island nation for inspiration

Hero:  Seychelles' blue bonds

First, in 2007, came the “green bond,” the debt instrument that has raised hundreds of billions of dollars for projects to combat or adapt to climate change. Now, a decade later, the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles has made a splash with the world’s first “blue bond,” aimed at easing environmental pressures on our oceans and marine life.

The proceeds of the 10-year, US$15-million issue will go towards overhauling the Seychelles’ fishing industry, the biggest contributor to the economy after tourism. Eligible projects include the development of aquaculture, training programs, new equipment and promotion of environmentally friendly fishing practices.

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Heroes & zeros: Danby and McKinsey

Hero:

It’s not easy for Jim Estill to assess whether his unusually generous support for Syrian refugees has helped or hurt his business.

Estill is chief executive of Danby Appliances, a maker of washing machines, dishwashers and microwaves based in Guelph, Ontario. He emerged two years ago as one of the biggest single participants in the Liberal government’s much-publicized drive to offer Syrian refugees a new home in Canada. As of late August, Estill alone had sponsored 61 families, with another six on the way and likely more in the future.

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Heroes & zeros: McDonald’s and Murray Energy

McDonalds moves to reduce its packaging waste, while Murray Energy lobbies for coal-friendly policies.

Hero:

When it comes to damaging our planet, the fast-food industry has much to answer for. The attractions of cheap burgers and drive-thru coffee are all too often sullied by allegations of poor working conditions, animal cruelty and the cost to the environment of mountains of paper, foam and polystyrene waste.

So McDonald’s deserves a round of applause for its recent pledge to use renewable, recyclable or certified materials for all packaging by 2025, and to put recycling bins in all 37,000 Golden Arch restaurants around the world.

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Heroes & zeros: Loblaw and Rio Tinto

Loblaws moves towards 100 per cent electric trucks, while former Rio Tinto executives are charged with fraud.

Hero:

When the talk turns to electric vehicles, it's typically about pioneering sedans like the Tesla S, Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf. Away from the spotlight however, much of the action is in commercial trucks.

A growing number of fleet operators are going electric, citing more power, lower maintenance costs and fewer emissions-compliance headaches versus their existing diesel vehicles. Among the latest is Loblaw Companies, Canada's biggest grocery chain, which unveiled plans in early November to switch to an all-electric fleet.

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Heroes & zeros: Kenneth Frazier and Eskom

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier stands against hate, while South African utility Eskom is mired in scandal.

Heroes:

Kenneth Frazier may have ushered in a new era of boldness in U.S. business leaders’ approach to divisive social and political issues. On August 14, Frazier, a janitor’s son who now heads Merck, the New Jersey-based pharmaceuticals giant, became the first CEO to walk away from President Donald Trump’s business advisory council in protest against the president’s inflammatory reaction to a rally of swastika-waving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, the previous weekend.

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Top company profile: Vancity

Making finance a force for good in society

Tamara Vrooman has a drop-dead response to a question about gender diversity at Vancity, Canada’s biggest credit union. Noting that women make up more than half of Vancity’s top management and seven of its nine board members, Vrooman, its chief executive, chuckles: “We are the only board in Canada looking for a few good men.”

That rare attribute helps explain why Corporate Knights has named Vancity Canada 2016’s Best Corporate Citizen. The credit union was also awarded the top spot in 2013.

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Taxing business

Putting multinational tax avoidance on the agenda

An obscure group of tax experts from such countries as Azerbaijan, New Zealand, Norway and Zambia, among others, seems an unlikely focal point for a high-stakes tug-of-war in the world of global finance.

Yet the 25-member United Nations committee on international cooperation in tax matters finds itself at ground zero in an escalating battle over how and where multinational corporations pay – or, more to the point, do not pay – their fair share of taxes.

The Group of 77 developing countries, led by India and China, wants to turn the committee into a more muscular inter-governmental agency that would have a voice in setting tax rules for many of the world’s biggest companies. Activists disrupted a meeting in Addis Ababa last summer by unfurling a banner that read: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

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Top company profile: Tim Hortons

A cultural icon, Tim Hortons has steadily improved its sustainability performance over the past five years. Will it stick?

Tim Hortons has again proven the old adage that the race goes not to the swiftest, but to the most sure-footed.

The coffee chain tops Corporate Knights’ 2015 ranking of Canada’s 50 Best Corporate Citizens. It owes its No. 1 spot less to a stand-out performance in any of the 12 categories used to compile the overall ranking, than to solid marks virtually across the board, from waste recycling to use of water and energy.

“They are a good all-rounder,” says Michael Yow, research director at Corporate Knights Capital, the magazine’s sister company. “They don’t excel, but they do well on almost all indicators.” Tim Hortons ranked fourth last year.

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