'Welcome', our gracious host said as I arrived at the 11th Annual Responsible Business Summit in London earlier this month, 'would you like a Coke? They are sponsoring the conference'.
Okay, so it wasn't quite like that -- I had to sign in and pick up my speaker's badge before the sponsor's fizzy black stuff became available. And it would be churlish to imply any criticism of the professionalism and care with which the conference was hosted - the staff of Ethical Corporation did an absolutely impeccable job of running the event.
But nonetheless, the offer of a snort of the real thing was enough to generate the usual feelings of unease. What is responsible business anyway?
Glancing down the list of corporate attendees the disquiet mounted. KFC - shortly afterwards exposed as users of rainforest destroying packaging purchased from the notorious forest destroyer Asia Pulp and Paper - had a representative present. Lockheed Martin - one of the world's largest arms producing and military service companies - was a sponsor. Missiles shipped in recycled cardboard perhaps? And as for Coke itself, well old allegations of links to union-busting Columbian death squads to one side, should the production and marketing of health-reducing soft-drink really ever be sensibly considered 'responsible business'?
Then there was the general spirit of boosterism in the air. This was a conference for believers: CSR officers within companies, and the staff of CSR consultancies who provide them with advice. A whole industry has now sprung up around the concept of corporate social responsibility. At best CSR advisers are hard headed rationalists, providing practical advice on cleaning up supply chains to avoid potential business risks. At the other end of the spectrum are the dark side of the practice, giving advice on image management, obfuscation and how to not get caught.
All talk about CSR is ultimately a conversation within a locked room. Businesses can be more or less socially useful and ethically conducted, but for so long as the majority of business is conducted by amoral profit-maximising entities the space for CSR will be necessarily confined. 'Of course', I've heard more than one CEO say, 'we want to do the right thing... but the bottom line has to come first'.
And as a matter of law, these CEOs are right. The primary obligation of corporations is to achieve the greatest return and to imagine anything else is to be off with the CSR Fairy in the Land of Make Believe. This cold hard reality still leaves some significant wriggle room: there are situations where doing the right thing is cost neutral or may even afford some commercial advantage. But let's be clear, Coke doesn't sponsor a conference on responsible business out of the goodness of its heart. And when a campaigning NGO is hot on the case, it will be in the commercial interest of a corporation to move, cost implications or not.
In some cases, being socially and environmentally responsible may even become central to a business plan when the enterprise's very ethicality becomes a key to their profitability. But for many businesses, ensuring that the social and environmental costs of operating remain externalities is a key to profitability.
Campaigning can change corporate behaviour directly; but ultimately - and as business itself regularly admits - the most reliable and effective way of getting corporations to be more responsible is through policy and regulatory intervention by government.
But try telling that to the neoliberal wrecking crew in charge of the country at the moment...
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