In the Netherlands, in Europe at large, and in the United States, the idea of corporate social responsibility – CSR – is spreading. Nike and Levi jeans have come under the gun for their overseas manufacturing processes and subsequently changed them. Starbucks in the US and coffee houses in Europe offer beans and brews that boast an
"environmental stamp of approval".
I’ve read that US celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford has testified before Congress regarding child labor and her products.
You can’t walk through downtown London, Paris or New York and not notice the ubiquitous health and beauty stores selling organically-grown and environmentally-safe products. Even tyre merchants are using recycling as part of their advertising strategy.
What does this all mean? I think we can conclude that Corporate Social Responsibility is more than just "feel good, in vogue" politics – it is a trend, a growing trend, and a positive trend to boot.
A substantial and structural development like CSR forces us to rethink the traditional roles and responsibilities of the business community, government and social organisations.
It also raises important new issues. For instance, what do government and the business community expect of each other? What could and should government do to assist businesses in making CSR work?
At base, CSR is the product, the result, of a company’s corporate attitude: companies develop corporate social responsibilities in line with their character and capacities.
This attitude and the resulting conduct cannot be imposed from the top down. Legislation requiring companies to do so would not only be almost impossible to enforce, but could also become counterproductive. Of course, where specific legislation is useful or necessary (for example labour law or fiscal measures), the government should act.
As for government, its role is not only to legislate, but also to stimulate and facilitate. In many areas, government should afford the business community the opportunity to regulate its own production processes and services.
Under such cooperative arrangements, businesses often assume their responsibilities more readily. And they often better appreciate their role in the realisation of socially relevant objectives; their good citizenship becomes internalised, if you will. In the Netherlands, we have achieved very strong results with this model, particularly
with covenants in the environmental field.
In addition to being a legislator, regulator and stimulator, the government is also an active participant in the market. Government buys goods and services in particular markets, and in doing so its actions can shape those markets. Government actions in the employment, procurement and contracting markets should be beyond approach, and it
should lead by example wherever and whenever possible.
As an employer, it can pay explicit attention to ethnic minorities, women and the handicapped, and it can provide opportunities to combine work and care. As a procurer and contractor, it is more than just another market party; the government must comply with European directives and other rules on public procurement and tendering which are
designed to ensure equal opportunities for business.
This is an edited version of a speech to the New America Foundation’s Global Economic Policy Program at the US Senate, Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.
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