If you missed the live webcast of Reuters’ Corporate Social Responsible panel yesterday, you can click here to view the full-length archived video. Stephen Frost live-blogged it on the CSR Asia blog. We had a sizeable group of bloggers from a range of countries on the live IRC chat – you can click here for the full chat transcript.
The panel at Reuters’ New York facility was distinguished but not exactly diverse: Doug Bauer from Rockefeller Philanthrophy Advisers, Clive Cook from the Atlantic Media Co., John Demsey, group president of Estee Lauder, Samuel DiPiazza, CEO of PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Reuters Chairman Niall FitzGerald. (click here for the full list of names and bios). All men, all North American or Western European, all white, all executives. Writing from Trinidad & Tobago, Atillah Springer commented in the live chat: “the more I think about it, the more insane it seems that they can be having a conversation about whose business CSR is and not have any stakeholders, not to mention women on the panel.”
A lot of laudable statements were made. Mr. FitzGerald made the impassioned point that corporations must be good citizens or large numbers of people on this planet will lose faith in the value of free markets. Business must find a strategic advantage to being responsible, DiPiazza believes. Knight predicted that sustainability – environmental and social – will be the key business innovation of the future. Panelists agreed that quarterly earnings pressures make it difficult for companies to act in a manner that is most socially responsible because social responsibility pays off more over the long term than the short term. Bloggers on the live chat found all these things encouraging. However many found the discussion to be divorced from the realities on the ground in their countries. There was also considerable cynicism about the ultimate motives of CSR, despite the lofty rhetoric. Atillah concluded from Trinidad & Tobago:
CSR especially when it comes to multi-nationals, is a legitimisation of modern day conquistadors with shining glass beads to a post-colonial, rapidly industrializing small island state, still reeling from the inherited and un-dealt with burdens of slavery, indentureship and an economy that is still set up to reflect the privileged ones who own the plantations.
In this part of the world, we HAVE to make companies act responsibly. We demand that they do, or we will, by any means necessary get them out.
Writing from Shenzhen, China, Stephen Frost of CSR Asia concluded:
I have to say that I thought the discussion was quite disappointing. They got caught up in the pointless question of what is CSR, without once mentioning that CSR is what stakeholders think companies should be doing. In fact, stakeholders didn’t even get mentioned. It was a very US-centric discussion (which is okay, I guess, since they are in New York), but the discussion and actitivities in Asia are so much more vital and interesting.
Before the panel began, Frost's colleague Liu Chenyan remarked on a major challenge for multinationals: headquarters might “get” CSR, but how much concerted effort is there to communicate these policies to local branches and sub-contractors? She wrote:
Most action, therefore, on CSR in China is still by US, Japanese and European multinationals. However, many of them fail to localize CSR policies developed in head office or communicate CSR visions to local offices or branches. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find Chinese managers working for foreign companies well known for their CSR work at home to be completely unaware of what CSR is let alone their company’s policies and vision.
Neha Viswanathan was surprised that the panel discussion – before Q&A began – gave no mention to the role of government. Neha remarked:
The interesting thing is that in most developing countries – you wouldn't dream of having a panel without a representative of the government when it comes to CSR – CSR is almost enforcable because of certain government policies – the government goes as far as indicating and making requests.
A blogger named “Karel” added: “we don't necessarily need the government to speak for us, but the government is stakeholder as well as it affects or brings policy into effect.”
On the IRC chat, we had an interesting follow-on conversation about what do you do when following the law in a particular country results in violation of human rights? Should companies refrain from doing business in certain markets or refrain from doing certain kinds of business in certain markets? Stephen live-blogged the unfolding discussion:
The discussion on the Global Voices IRC chat focussed on China and the Internet companies. The panel started off talking about whether a mining company can even do CSR because they destroy the environment. Another panel member said that he had a problem with the term CSR as he does with the word sustainability. Sustainability is waffle (which started a lively discussion). Niall FitzGerald mentioned that during his time at Unilever he got sustainability across to factory owners in northern England (a tough bunch) by appealing to the issue of costs (reducing energy consumption equals less cost, etc). Then they understood sustainability in their own terms.
There was also the question posed in the chat about whether certain types of businesses – and the marketing messages they use to sell their products, are inherently socially irresponsible in the first place. If a company is demonizing breastfeeding in order to sell baby formula, for instance? Or promoting bad eating habits or socially questionable behavior because such behaviors would increase consumption of the company's products?
At the end, when Reuters moderator Paul Holmes asked panelists for their five year predictions, Responses included Knight's prediction that sustainability will be the key innovation of the future.
Neha had the best prediction though: “In 5 years they would have outsourced all their CSR decisions to India – woohoo!”