Google+ Followers


Information, news and commentary on corporate social responsibility, especially in the New York City area. Linked to website
Maintained by John Tepper Marlin, Principal, CSRNYC.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What Does Corporate Social Responsibility Mean Today?

From Agency Post
I have been following and writing about the Corporate Social Responsibility movement since 1970 when I first heard about the work of Alice Tepper and the Council on Economic Priorities. I was then teaching corporate finance at Baruch College (CUNY). At that time, CSR issues were largely focused on the environment, especially air pollution in the paper, steel, military contracting and other industries. Labor campaigns were oriented around promotion of women and minorities to executive and board positions. 

How has the CSR movement evolved? I previously mentioned, in a January post on this site, the LinkedIn CSR group. Steve at Voien Consulting has been since 2012 on a campaign to simplify and standardize the many different names for sustainability and CSR. His research indicates that environmental and human rights issues are stubbornly separated.

He recently asked members what "two or three words" they think of in the context of CSR. The response was the largest of any previous post, with "about 400" comments so far.

The responses were counted by Wilson Fang. Here is his tabulation. CSR means:
1 Sustainability 68 responses
2 Ethics 49
3 Responsibility 48
4 Environment & Planet 43
5 Society 37
6 Accountability  22
7 People 21
8 Community 19
9 Profit & Money 18
10 Transparency 15
11 Development 15
12 Image 11
13 Stakeholder 11
14 Public relations 10
15 Collaboration 10

Comment: Sustainability may be a clearer goal than CSR, especially when it is used in the corporate context - in other words, sustainability for a corporation is a clearer goal than "social responsibility". Sustainability contains within it the three pillars of people, planet, profit. The concept becomes clearer when we think of how a lack of responsibility has resulted in huge losses, for example in 2008.

Many companies have bought heavily into the idea of being sustainable. CSR has evolved to the point where the idea has enough converts to reach its own sustainability. Achieving CSR/sustainability requires practical instruments to make the goal happen within companies and among suppliers. That is why capacity building among corporations in the United States and Europe - and their suppliers elsewhere - is so prized in 2014.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Brazil's Drought - A Teachable Moment?

Sao Paolo Reservoir
SAO PAOLO. I’m here in Brazil for about three weeks and my first stop has been in the most populous city proper in Latin America. Its metro area is about the same size as Mexico City's, 21 million. These two cities are significantly more populous than the third-place New York metro area, which has a population of 19 million.

An unexpected string of snowstorms in New York... Atlanta... Tokyo... and, in case you haven't heard, drought in Brazil. Sao Paolo is running out of water. Connect the dots to climate change. (As my friend Peter Sealy asks me on Facebook - do we need James Bond to track down the culprit?)  

Some news is delivered in single spies, other news in battalions. Sao Paolo is facing the end of half of its water supply in 45 days. It's one of the main sites for the 20th FIFA World Cup, and the idea of water rationing during the month (June 12-July 13) of the World Cup is causing local consternation.

The Shrinking Amazon Rainforest
Suspect #1 is the shrinking rainforest. Nature has responded to the shrinkage of the forest cover by reducing rainfall. As yield per hectare has fallen, the demand for new farmland has continued.  The cycle is unmistakable, but the message is muted by the fact that it has been happening incrementally.

Now, the severe drought is delivering the message of crisis. Loss of rainforest is not just the global problem of loss of diversity. Deforestation may have helped dry up reservoirs in Sao Paolo. Brazil doesn't want embarrassing readiness issues with the World Cup as have been plaguing the Olympics in Sochi.

In this post I ask three questions:
  • Why has the Brazilian rainforest been such a top cause for socially responsible consumers and investors?
  • What has been the effect of all the global interest on deforestation of the rainforest?
  • Can we pinpoint the guiltiest parties and do more to save the rainforest?
Why the Rainforest Cause Is So Attractive

This loss of tropical forest is deeply troubling for anyone concerned about global sustainability because the world’s rainforests are
  • a major repository of species biodiversity from which new medicinal cures and food sources could emerge, and are
  • the lungs of the earth, the means by which we renew the planet’s oxygen supply.
The Amazon rainforest is the most important single remaining rainforest in the world, and 60 percent of it is in Brazil. (Surinam is one of the other South American countries sharing the rainforest. My grandfather Abraham J. van Stockum was sent by the Dutch Queen to lead an expedition into the rainforest in Surinam to find the source of the Saramacca River, and he wrote a book in 1905 about the expedition.)
Clearcutting the Rainforest

Environmental groups frequently show pictures of threatened exotic rainforest birds, other animals or plants. The Amazon rainforest is home to 40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, about 800 reptiles and amphibians (snakes, lizards, frogs, toads) and some 3,000 fish species.

Protecting the rainforest has been, at least since the 1960s, an early concern of environmentalists and conservationists. Their appeal to protection of animal and plant diversity has been based on preserving access to potential future cures for cancer or other human diseases or ailments. It was one of the earliest themes cited by American social ventures that looked for causes to which they could link their brands. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, back in 1988, was looking for a new brand to tie to the protection of the rainforest. The product they came up with was Rainforest Crunch ice cream. The Body Shop in the 1990s sought customers by claiming their product not only included exotic oils and plants but were helping ensure sustainability of the Amazon rainforest.  The Rainforest Alliance has even built protecting the rainforest into their name and their tree-frog logo.

If corporations can win public approbation for championing the sustainability of a single bird, for example, what better cause than championing the protection of the area that is home to many, many threatened species?

Status of Rainforest Protection

No question, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in the last 50 years has been alarming. The average annual loss depends on what time period you look at, but a Brazilian told me the annual loss of  Brazilian rainforest over the decades has approximated to the size of Belgium, nearly 30,500 square kilometers (about 12,000 square miles). Belgium is about the size of Maryland.  The figures I report below show that in some decades the loss has been more than the size of Belgium, sometimes less.

The 1990s pleas of environmental organizations seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The decade of the 1990s was worst ever, as the loss in the total Amazon rainforest in Latin America is estimated at nearly 590,000 square kilometers, the size of Spain. This is an annual rate of loss equal to double the size of Belgium.

The modestly good news is that the rate of loss, at least in Brazil, has slowed since then.  Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) reports on deforestation using satellite images. Since the benchmark 1970 Amazon rainforest cover of 4,100,000 km², the Brazilian forest area has been reduced to 3,344,000 km² in 2013 – a loss of 18.4%. (See Table.)

Table. Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest Cover – Annual and Cumulative Loss
Left (est. km2)
Annual loss 
Rate (km2)
Cum. Loss
Since 1970 (km2)

The rate of deforestation in recent years has been slower. However, the forest continues to shrink. The main driving forces for deforestation are a need for housing and the economic incentives for switching land from rainforest use to any other use. About 70 percent of the lost forest has been replaced with grazing areas. Cattle ranchers are sometimes fingered as a driver for rainforest loss. The  ranchers respond that they simply move in on cleared areas, and that the real driver is demand for wood for building in Sao Paolo and other cities.  

A little history might help here. Before the Spanish and Portuguese colonists arrived, the Amazon basin is believed to have been densely populated, with much of it farmed. The rainforests were not as extensive as they are today. United Spain and a prosperous Portugal set out to create empires, starting by defeating the Incas and the Aztecs. The colonial invaders exploited first the sugar cane production and then moved up into Minas Gerais to mine gold and other metals and diamonds. To provide labor for these enterprises, Africans were brought to Brazil and by 1800 they constituted half of the population. Through conquest and through new diseases, the Amazon basin became depopulated. The rainforest spread to where farms had been. The peak of the Amazon rainforest was probably in the mid-20th Century. Deforestation was speeded up by highways that made access to the rainforest easier.

The Guilty Parties

Who is responsible for the deforestation? Like any good mystery story, there are many plausible suspects:
After a Rainforest Fire
  • The marketplace. The price of soybeans goes up, and more farmers want to grow soybeans. The price of soybeans goes down and  farmers want more land to offset the loss of value.  In 2003, the peak year of deforestation, more than 20 percent of the Mato Grosso state’s forests were converted to cropland, largely for growth of soybean farming. 
  • Small farmers. The rainforest has become host to smaller farms starting in the 1960s. They have used unsustainable farming methods, which meant farmers got used to depleting the soil. Their solution was to move on to new areas.
  • Loggers. Loggers cut down the trees using the clear-cutting method instead of the more sustainable harvesting approach. They cut down rare old trees that should be protected.
  • Cattle ranchers. They create incentives for clearing the land because they will buy it. They can use almost any cleared land because they require few workers (not counting the animals) and cattle only need to eat grass, whereas the soil needs of sugar cane, coffee or rubber trees are greater. 
  • Real estate speculators. The large - tenfold - increase in value of land for grazing over forest land is believed by some Brazilians to create incentives that lead to such actions as owners starting forest fires so they can realize a sale of their land quickly.
  • Government education. Governments should be doing more to educate farmers about sustainable farming, which a recent post on Grist advises is about “math as much as mulch."
  • Government road-building. The Brazilian government has built three highways with unintended consequences - the Belem-Brasília federal highway in 1958, which enabled two million new settlers in the next 20 years, the Cuiaba-Porto Velho highway in 1968, and the Trans-Amazonian highway of 1972.
  • Government regulation. Governments are slow to regulate because a powerful special interest can usually prevail over a general one. “I love my country. It is beautiful," one Brazilian told me. "But the government can do what it wants because the public is not properly educated and even educated people are not properly informed about the issues.”
We Have Met the Enemy
Unlike a mystery story, finding a single culprit is impossible. We are all part of the problem. Solutions depend on getting as many stakeholders at the table as we can.

Consumers should demand sustainability in the products they buy. Businesses should contribute through trade associations to a culture of compliance and, beyond that, to certification of sustainable practices. The Brazilian government and state and local governments need to enforce sustainability laws as well as create new policies.

One promising development was Norway's 2008 commitment of up to $1 billion over seven years to Brazil's Amazon Fund. The Fund is set up to slow down the deforestation of the Amazon, for example by providing technical assistance and financial incentives to states and localities in Brazil. The British Overseas Development Institute has attempted to evaluate such "climate finance" programs and suggests they need more analytical support, and that partnerships with business are a potentially fruitful direction. But the BBC's climate correspondent does not see a Global Climate Fund getting under way as quickly as it expects.

As Nature turns the screws a few more times, we can only pray she gets more attention.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

After Rana Plaza, Redefining Responsibility for Safety in the Global Supply Chain

Aftermath of Rana Plaza collapse in Savar, Bangladesh.
The NY Times story today (December 31) by Jim Yardley about Spain's Mango clothing brand covers a third new issue that has dogged the brands following major Bangladesh factory disasters, about the latest of which I posted in May.

In 2012 it was the Tazreen fire in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh), killing more than 110 workers. In 2013, it was the Rana Plaza collapse in Savar, part of Greater Dhaka, in 2013, killing more than 1,100 in the deadliest factory disaster in the history of clothing manufacture.

The Three Main Post-Rana-Plaza Initiatives

Brand responses have centered on three main corporate responsibility initiatives, the third of which is the subject of Yardley's article:
  • The Accord (100 Mostly European Brands). The Bangladesh Safety Accord is an agreement between global labor unions and brands, primarily European brands, to commit primarily to two things. First, the signers must pay an annual membership fee of a maximum of $500,000 per signer per year, the amount being based on a sliding scale related to business size and involvement in Bangladesh, to support inspections of the safety of workers in some 1,600 Bangladesh factories manufacturing clothing for the brands. In addition, the members -- 100 identified on its website -- hold themselves responsible for ensuring remediation of safety issues (both fire safety and building construction) identified by the Accord staff if the factory itself cannot afford this remediation, and for maintaining payments to workers during the remediation if they cannot work during remediation. Signers of the Accord also agree to continue the level of their orders in Bangladesh for the period of the agreement. An attempt to attach to the National Defense Reauthorization bill a requirement that military base exchanges purchase clothing only from Accord members failed to get support in the Senate.  
  • The Alliance (25 North American Brands). The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is a parallel agreement, also covering fire and building safety, among about 25 American and Canadian brands and industry associations that have committed more than $40 million to addressing safety problems at Bangladesh factories. The Alliance includes members that have been spending significant sums addressing safety issues in Bangladesh. Alliance members are concerned about the risk of litigation over the Accord's more open-ended commitments and they have noted that litigation against brands is far more common and likely in the United States than in Europe. Both the Accord and the Alliance have been inspecting factories and in both cases remediation is under way. Both have posted lists of factories in their members' supply chains. Both require management-labor occupational health and safety committees, but the Accord involves the labor unions from inception. Both are cooperating with the ILO-led intergovernmental agreement that seeks to coordinate business initiatives.
  • The Rana Plaza Compensation Program. The NY Times story today focuses on a $40 million compensation program for families of victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, brokered by the Clean Clothes Campaign and reported on by Steven Greenhouse in the NY Times last week. Four retailers — Bonmarché, El Corte Inglés, Loblaw and Primark — have pledged to contribute to the fund to make payments to the families of the 1,100 workers who died in the Rana Plaza building collapse in April. The fund would pay more than $25,000 on average (13.2 years of salary at the average income in Bangladesh) to the family of each worker who died, more than $27.5 million. In addition, payments will be made to hundreds of hundreds of workers and rescuers who suffered injuries. .
The story today is that a high-fashion women's clothing brand, Mango of Barcelona, Spain, is being pressured to join the other four retailers in the compensation program. Mango is noted for its designs and efficiency. Its labels were among those reportedly found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building. It was one of the first 25 signers of the Accord. However, Mango says that it had only contracted for samples from the factory, Phantom Tac, which was located in the collapsed Rana Plaza building. Prior to the collapse, the Phantom Tac owners had  undertaken CSR initiatives such as innovative training programs and supplier-to-buyer labeling. Mango argues that it was merely investigating Phantom Tac for purposes of getting approval for a possibly significant order, and that it should not be held to the same level of responsibility as other brands that had made deeper purchase commitments.

The Key Role of the Bangladesh Government

At the same time, the Bangladesh government is being pressured by the brands to cooperate with their initiatives and to enforce safety laws, especially in factories that are not covered by either the Accord or the Alliance. As Yardley's article makes clear, some factory owners are closely connected to the government.

UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stressed in its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (usually called the "Ruggie Principles" after their chief author, Harvard Professor John Ruggie) that there is a limit to the utility of voluntary business programs where safety issues are involved. Safety standards must apply to all buildings, not just ones where the owners are responsible. Government laws and their enforcement are essential. The Bangladeshi government must be an integral part of any voluntary initiatives to address factory safety.


All of these developments are changing the relationships between buyers and sellers in the global supply chain. The primary beneficiaries of these changes are workers overseas, who will work under better conditions. The beneficiaries are also workers in higher-cost developed countries, who already have better conditions, because the playing field will be made more level and cost differentials can be expected to narrow.

Bangladesh is a key focus because it is second after China in the manufacture of clothing and is a recent entrant in the manufacture of clothing, which is a sector that is relatively easy to enter because of its high labor component. For Bangladesh, clothing is its major export and its main hope of bringing millions of its people out of poverty.

The CSR issues are complex and challenging. The new initiatives are major. The Accord is described as legally binding, but signing onto the agreement is voluntary. If the Accord-imposed costs start to accelerate, the next such agreement will be a lot harder to negotiate.

European brands predominate in the Accord because Europe is more dependent for manufacture on Bangladesh, which sends 60 percent of its exports to Europe and only 25 percent to the United States, which has Latin American alternatives. Europe is also much more committed to fair trade with exporting countries. It is more comfortable with stronger government and cooperation between management and unions. It has less distance between the highest and lowest levels of income.

The wording of the remediation funding portion of the Accord is open to multiple interpretations and possible scenarios. For example, the buying brand is responsible for remediation costs if the factory cannot afford to pay for them. But who decides this? The agreement could have the perverse effect of relieving factory owners in Bangladesh from any incentive to spend money on remediation themselves. If pleading poverty means western buyers are legally bound to pay for remediation costs, who will decide not to plead poverty?

How the brands interface with the Bangladesh government in the months and years ahead is not yet clear. The crucial issues are:
  • Can a high-profile, well-funded program transform such a troubled, corruption-riddled, and poverty-stricken country? Will the Bangladesh government play the role that is required?
  • Can the three programs be coordinated so that they are consistent and non-duplicative? The ILO is seeking to ensure that this happens.
  • Will the experience of the brands with the Accord and the Alliance be so positive that it will lead to other agreements to ensure worker safety in the supply chain, or will it simply lead to more vertical integration, to the detriment of initiative and employment in Bangladesh?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Company Codes of Conduct

A company code of conduct is a statement of how seriously the company takes its environmental and social responsibilities. The company code can refer to industry-wide codes and multi-stakeholder-initiative (MSI) standards, which are two other building blocks in the CSR framework.

Companies may create their code of conduct in response to governmental or NGO concern about the adequacy of the company’s social and environmental behavior. It's a beginning because it establishes that the company not only plans to operate to ensure its financial survival but plans to do so while maintaining certain standards of conduct.

The next phase is to start looking at the cost of fixing workplace or environmental abuses. For industries and situations where abuses are widespread, it may take years for a company to meet even minimal of environmental or social standards.

A company and its executives – or an industry-wide coalition of companies seeking to improve practices – must therefore decide how much to invest in CSR, i.e., how high its voluntary standards should be set and how urgently compliance timetables should be conceived. The company and industry response will depend only partly on the ethical concerns of its executives -- it will depend also on how deeply rooted and extensive existing noncompliances are and how expensive it may prove to end them.

The most basic step is to articulate a company code or mission – or, for an industry-wide group, an industry-wide code or mission. Many companies develop their own. Developing a company’s own detailed code may prove to be an expensive and unnecessary step if, as many companies do, the company proceeds to adopt an MSI standard. The public relations and internal-efficiency value of an industry code or MSI standard is much greater than that of a company code, even though some companies developed a high-quality company code before the MSI standards were available.

The company code typically articulates its mission in a way that recognizes that it sits at the intersection of three circles – markets, ethics and law, the common element of which is reciprocity (quid pro quo, fairness to stakeholders). The sustainable company must make a profit, must obey the law and must operate in an ethical way.

Among the many company codes that have been written, the following are of special interest: Aeon (Japan)Coop ItaliaDoleHasbroMattelMcDonald’sNikeOtto Versand (German)Phillips-Van HeusenReebokTimberlandToys R UsDisney and Voegele (Swiss). Smaller and less well-known companies with codes include Kesko (Finnish), Switcher (Swiss), Cutter & BuckEileen Fisher and Patagonia.

When the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices was first set up, it drafted an industry code of conduct. Many of its members, like Rio Tinto, already had a company code of conduct and some produce well-regarded CSR reports.

The main weakness of individual company codes is that without some standards their proliferation adds to the confusion. Unique company codes make it difficult for suppliers trying to sell to multiple buyers, for consumers comparing company policies and practices, for retailers trying to factor CSR into their procurement, and for workers seeking to determine their rights.

In an attempt to sort through the confusion and look at the actual content of company codes, the ILO and OECD a few years ago discovered that only two-thirds of company codes they reviewed addressed workplace discrimination. Fewer provided for workplace safety. Only one-fifth addressed freedom of association or training. Fewer than 20 percent required one day’s rest in seven. Fewer than one-third commited the company to monitor implementation.

Two main corporate strategies for a company code therefore seem to have evolved:

  • A company code may be a first step, preliminary to higher standards. In this approach, a company code is an acknowledged preliminary step before adopting an industry code or MSI standard. In this case, the company code will set standards somewhere higher than the level company is already achieving, but not at the level required by the industry code or MSI standard. The investment in the code should be kept to a minimum because the company will be reinventing the wheel.
  • A company code may substitute for higher standards. Some company codes are designed give the company time to take a wait-and-see attitude toward adopting an industry-wide code or MSI standard. In this case, the company may feel under no pressure to set its standard above the level it is already achieving and the code’s main purpose is to be a place on the company web site where the company can refer NGOs and other inquiries.
The issues facing companies go beyond the creation of codes of conduct. They involve implementation – monitoring, auditing and remediation, especially among suppliers. These issues point toward group solutions, whether at the industry-wide code level or through MSI standards.

Note: I wrote this originally in 2006. I have edited what I wrote and am reposting in the hope of prompting some feedback. The issues are still with us.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Vacancy - CSR/Sustainability Reporting Practice

A former student in the CSR elective for MBA students at NYU is overseeing a growing practice in advising corporations on CSR reporting/Sustainability Communication. She is looking for someone "passionate" about sustainability reporting to serve as Client Service Manager in her unit. Email me at for details.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Senator Mark Hanna, opposed Spanish-American War

Senator Mark Hanna, Adviser
to President McKinley, opposed
war with Spain.
Marcus Alonza (Mark) Hanna was a wealthy businessman from Cleveland and a leading adviser to President McKinley. He urged McKinley not to go to war against Spain.

Hanna was born in Lisbon, Ohio, in 1837, the son of a Quaker businessman with Scotch-Irish ancestry. His family moved to Cleveland when he was a teenager and he attended high school with John D. Rockefeller. He was expelled from college, and entered the family mercantile business. He served briefly during the American Civil War.

He married Charlotte Rhodes and joined her father's business after the war. The company became prosperous in extracting coal and iron and later in investing in railroads. By 40, he was wealthy and he backed McKinley's campaign for President. He was then appointed and later elected Senator from Ohio and advised McKinley.

He wanted McKinley to avoid war with Spain because he feared that the destabilizing effects of a war might hurt the US economy. President Cleveland had threatened to veto a war a few years earlier. But McKinley believed if the American people wanted a war they should get it, even if it was bad for the economy.

Even at the end of the Cleveland years, Americans followed the revolt in Cuba, then a Spanish colony. Most Americans believed that Spain should leave the Western Hemisphere. Soon after Hanna was appointed to the Senate for his first term, McKinley called Congress into special session to consider tariff legislation. A number of resolutions were introduced calling for independence for Cuba. 

When the press asked Hanna if he felt there would be action on Cuba during the session, he responded: "I don't know. You can't tell about that. A spark might drop in there at any time and precipitate action." Through 1897, McKinley maintained neutrality on Cuba. Pro-war elements, including the Hearst newspapers, pressured McKinley for a more aggressive foreign policy. 

On May 20, 1897, the Senate voted to intervene in Cuba, 41–14. Hanna was opposed, believing that quietly pressing Spain for colonial reform in Cuba had already yielded results without war. 

On February 15, 1898, the American warship Maine sank in Havana harbor, taking the lives of more than 250 officers and men. It is today still unclear whether or not the explosion which caused Maine's sinking was from an external cause. McKinley ordered a board of inquiry. The Hearst newspapers, with the slogan, "Remember the Maine and to hell with Spain!" pounded a drumbeat for war. The Hearst papers painted Hanna as the true master in the White House. Many who favored war deemed McKinley too timid. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt shook his fist under Hanna's nose at the Gridiron Dinner and stated, "We will have this war for the freedom of Cuba in spite of the timidity of the commercial classes!" 

The Navy's report blamed an external cause for the sinking of Maine (modern reports have suggested it was more likely an internal explosion within a coal bunker). When it became clear that the United States would accept nothing but Cuban independence.  On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for authority to secure Cuban independence, using force if necessary. Hanna supported McKinley in obtaining that authority, though he stated privately, "If Congress had started this, I'd break my neck to stop it. Spain broke off diplomatic relations on April 20; Congress declared war five days later, retroactive to April 21. The war resulted in a complete American victory. Nevertheless, Hanna was uncomfortable with the conflict. He stated during the war to a member of the public, "Remember that my folks were Quakers. War is just a damn nuisance." After the Battle of El Caney, he viewed the American casualty lists and stated, "Oh, God, now we'll have this sort of thing again!" After the war, Hanna supported McKinley's decision to annex Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico and Guam.

Summary: Hanna failed to convince McKinley to avoid war but probably contributed to its being of limited purpose and duration. B.
Sources: This sketch is based on Wikipedia. Several biographies have been written about Hanna.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nicias, Born Nearly 2500 Years Ago - Businessman, General, Peacemaker, Disaster

Nicias, Athenian Champion
of Peace with Sparta
Nicias was born in 470 BC, 20 years after the Battle of Marathon that occurred today in 490 BC, 2503 years ago (2013+490) and was crucial in repulsing the invasion of Persian King Darius I. In 480 BC, Darius's son Xerxes also invaded Greece and again the Persians were repulsed, opening up a Golden Age of self-confidence in Greece.

Nicias inherited from his father a fortune that had at its center some silver mines near Mr. Laurium outside Athens in Attica, Greece. He was said to have 1,000 slaves working in his mines.

Starting in 431 BC, the Golden Age started to fall apart as Athens became engaged in a war with Sparta and its allies (the Peloponnesian War). After the great Athenian democrat Pericles died in 429 BC, Nicias's high position in Athens that his money entitled him to drew him into politics. He was elected one of the "strategoi" or generals in the fight with Sparta. In those days generals were expected to help finance the ships that would carry the fleet, and they also had to have the support of the people.

Nicias was a successful general during the next eight years but came into conflict with Cleon and his populist imperialism. Nicias urged moderation and sought peace with Sparta. He led negotiations that produced the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC. However, allies of Sparta did not care for the treaty and war broke out again after a few years. 

Some in Athens advocated invading Syracuse in Sicily to end the war once and for all. They favored a modest fleet and Nicias sought to discourage the expedition by saying a much bigger fleet was needed. Alas, the result of his speech-making was not that Athens called off the expedition but rather that the citizens called for a grossly expanded force. 
Nicias and the Sicilian
Expedition by Rev. Alfred
J. Church.

Nicias ended up being sent in 415 BC to lead the expedition to Syracuse, along with Alcibiades and Lamachus. He disagreed often with them, but they agreed to wait out the winter in Sicily - which gave time for Sparta and other city states to raise opposing forces. Meanwhile Lamachus died during the winter and Alcibiades returned to Athens. Nicias was left in charge, sick and apprehensive. A wall that Nicias tried to build around Syracuse was not completed. Seeing failure ahead, Nicias asked to be relieved of his command, but instead the Athenians sent reinforcements under Demosthenes, which arrived early in 413. 

However, the new troops were insufficient to turn the tide.  Demosthenes favored leaving, but soothsayers said the eclipse of the moon on August 27, 413 BC, was a sign they should persist. Nicias accepted this advice, partly because he did not want to return to an Athens that would execute him. The remaining Athenian forces were cornered and the surviving Athenian soldiers were sent to work in the deadly Sicilian quarries. Athens thereafter went into decline for the next 2450 years to 2013 when its continued membership in the EU is in doubt. 

Summary: Nicias gets an A for his Athens-Sparta treaty, an F for his double-or-nothing strategy that backfired and resulted in greater losses for Athens and its defeat by Sparta in 404 BC and its subsequent decline. 

Sources: This sketch is abbreviated from the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition, public domain) and other online sources.The primary source for a longer article would be Thucydides' Peloponnesian Wars which I read in Greek in high school, and Plutarch's Lives. Church wrote a book about Nicias.