This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Corporate responsibility activist

Geographer wants companies to think about individuals and the environment

Published: April 12, 2007

Reporter Staff Writer

A speech by the brother of the late Nigerian social and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa helped inspire Trina Hamilton's interest in large corporations taking responsibility toward individuals and the environment.


Trina Hamilton’s research shows that corporations are responding to pressure to become more socially and environmentally responsible.

Hamilton says the lecture, which she attended as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, encouraged her to further explore the field of geography—which she calls an "interdisciplinary discipline"—as a place where she could combine her interests in the humanities, the biological and social sciences, and business. At that time, she had no idea that the environmental causes that were then popular on the West Coast of Canada were set to surge to the national consciousness 10 years later in the United States.

"My particular interest is corporate responsibility," says Hamilton, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, College of Arts and Science, who joined the UB faculty this fall. "I look at how corporations respond to new pressures to be more socially and environmentally responsible. It's become sort of a hot topic...particularly issues such as climate change, which is becoming a mainstream issue."

The greatest sign that concern over climate change is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon has been that businesses are agreeing to report on the environment to their shareholders, she says, noting that corporations that acknowledge these issues as being important to their financial well-being are less likely to forget about the environment. Moreover, Hamilton says, the pressure to act is beginning to come from inside, as well as outside, the boardroom from shareholders.

"There's become more of a business case for these things as you increasingly see socially responsible investors getting involved," she says. "It's not only about protests going on outside; there's a lot of dialogue going on inside [the boardroom]. I found that NGOs, as well as shareholders, were involved in the majority of campaigns."

There seems to be a nearly 75 percent correlation between corporate campaigns and corporate change based on research she conducted as a graduate student at Clark University. "That was actually more impact than I expected," says Hamilton.

Her doctoral dissertation, which garnered more than $25,000 in financial support from the National Science Foundation and Clark University, included a statistical investigation into campaigns at more than 150 major corporations—ranging from a pledge by Staples to stop selling paper products made from trees in endangered forests to a promise by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to reduce ocean pollution through upgraded on-board waste disposal systems—as well as meetings conducted in cities from Boston and San Francisco to Washington and New York City.

"I went around the country and did about 50 interviews with both corporate executives and campaigners," says Hamilton. "I flew to maybe six cities and did six to 10 interviews in each city."

The project also piqued her interest in the burgeoning corporate responsibility consulting industry, she says, noting she learned from activists that a proposed resolution concerning the environment often can receive as many as 30 percent more positive votes from shareholders if an outside consultant group recommends voting in favor of it. "I'm trying to figure out the role they're playing in brokering these new contracts, even informal contracts, between activists and communities and big corporations," she says.

Hamilton plans to continue examining the role of consulting firms on corporate responsibility while at UB. She also has launched a second research project into corporate responsibility in the international diamond industry.

"There's been a lot of concern about conflict diamonds [used to fund rebel warfare], particularly coming out of Africa," she says, explaining that major international players such as De Beers have established a presence in northern Canada in order to cash in on diamond caches discovered in the region. The question she aims to explore is whether Canada's emergence as an ethical source of diamonds means that buyers are turning a blind eye to abuses in Africa, or if higher ethical standards in North America are forcing positive changes across the Atlantic.

Although she has campaigned on behalf of ethical and ecological issues related to corporate activities—for instance, controversial practices in the oil-rich Niger Delta—Hamilton feels her role has gone from that of activist to educator. "I feel my contribution is on the research end at this point," she says. "I made a decision once I decided to research this topic not to be personally involved in any campaigns because I wanted to look at both sides; I wanted to interview executives, as well as campaigners."

This semester, Hamilton teaches two courses on international culture and commercial problems to graduate and undergraduate students in business and geography. "UB Geography is one of the few geography departments in the U.S. that has a specified international trade and international business focus," she says, "which was one of the things that attracted me to the department. It's got a very clear focus and it's got a number of faculty working on international trade and business issues."

A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Hamilton resides in Buffalo's Allentown neighborhood. "I really knew nothing about Buffalo, but I found once I got here that there's a lot to do in terms of cultural amenities and restaurants," she says, noting she has been to several lectures and concerts at UB, plus a performance of the Irish Classical Theater Company. She and her fiancé, Dale Lum, a geographic software programmer, are enjoying exploring the city, she says.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by the city, and the people are very friendly," she says. "I like to think that's the Canadian influence."