Considerations on Corporate Social Responsibility

It wasn’t easy deciding what the first post on this blog should be, what with all the different topics, issues, problems, ideas and rants that fill my head when I think about globalisation. But then, after a little consideration, it wasn’t too difficult either. The topic would have to centre on the business sector and the crucial role it plays in shaping our globalised world. As a matter of fact, there is nothing today more global than a Transnational Corporation (TNC), certainly more so than – say – the United Nations, with their post-WWII DNA eternally embedded in their very name.

It’s been in particular a while since I wanted to throw around a few of my thoughts on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a topic which I find endlessly fascinating, having tried (sometimes succeeded!) as a fundraiser to suck a little cash out of businesses in favour of warm and fuzzy NGO projects, and being generally very interested in that twilight zone that separates the for-profit from the not-for-profit world. According to Mallen Baker, Development Director for Business in the Community, whose website is hugely instructive on how enlightened businesses see their role in shaping a better world, CSR is about how companies manage the business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society. His arguments in defence of CSR, together with a number of conversations (mainly after large quantities of beer) with friends interested in the same topic, or even working within the business sector, led me to have second thoughts on my initially scheptical approach: what if businesses were not so bad after all? Maybe they’ve learnt from their mistakes… Maybe Ben & Jerry really do care about the fate of ALL ice, not just ice-cream…

Yeah, you spotted the irony. There is surely a case to be made against the business sector, and no one has made it better than Joel Bakan in The Corporation. On CSR, his position is very clear: it’s not that these guys don’t want to be socially and environmentally responsible, they simply can’t. Well researched and well written, the book (and subsequent film) is so convincing in making the case of corporations as psychopaths that even the Economist has little to lash out at. Full stop. End of the debate. Except… Well, that final chapter by Noam Chomsky, calling the proletariat to arms to crush the American Empire that has allowed this psychopath to become a world menace, left a nauseous emptiness inside me – Chomsky often has this effect on my brain, not too dissimilar to the one burgers have on my stomach, which is why I have stopped reading the former and eating the latter. The fact is that, despite all the evidence brought by Bakan, he offers little solution to the current situation except a generic tightening of government regulations on the business sector. But in a progressively globalised world, if a TNC is unhappy with the governing regulations in – for example – Atlanta, it’ll just pack up and move to Beijing. So far no one has been able to present a real alternative between top-down state policing and voluntary well-behaviour. This leaves us all – corporations, pressure groups, politicians, citizens and the planet – dissatisfied. Worse. It delivers us mummy-style wrapped in cello-tape into the hands of a psychopath.

As my friend Le Duc suggests:

    What is business all about? Is it the relentless accumulation of as much money as possible by whatever means that are just this side of legal? Or is it about a broader set of responsibilities in exchange of the extraordinary privilege of incorporation and limited liability?

There is no universal answer to this, because each business is different from another one, but John Elkington, founder of SustainAbility, seems to think a tilt from a ‘compliance agenda’ towards real corporate responsibility is inevitable, and puts his argument forward in Cannibals with Forks, which introduced us for the first time to the concept of ‘triple bottom line’. Yet, he has just taken a keen interest in the social enterprise sector, and with a hefty grant from the Skoll Foundation (who would have thought…?) he’s begun looking at the links between corporate responsibility, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development (his first podcast can be downloaded here). While admiring his technological youthfulness, I can’t help wondering if this new interest has been sparked by a deeper, more sinister realisation about the limits of corporations. I am certainly looking forward to hearing how he comes to terms with the crucial difference between businesses and social enterprises, namely their opposite approach to the concept of profit.

The trial continues…

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9 responses to “Considerations on Corporate Social Responsibility

  1. Like the first post! You are interested in a lot and I would love to argue with you, but I agree with everything.

  2. Whether deliberate or not, I think much of the CSR programmes work to (a) legitimise the place of (unaccountable) corporations in society and (b) act as the unique selling point of a company dealing in homogenised goods with other similar companies (like the oil market, BP and Shell both have extravagant CSR rhetoric). The worry of neoliberal globalisation in the many forms it takes is that political accountability is undermined. Which leaves no role for civil society in shaping their political and social lives – how can an employee ask for better working conditions if her employer provides the school for her kids? (Shell provide education for many of their worker communities)

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