Saturday, August 01, 2009

Corporate social responsibility movement: Is it just a scam?

“What do we do when the entire economy becomes a Nigerian email scam?” That's the provocative question posed in an article on the Website of America magazine on August 3.

Well, one thing we should do is to recognize that the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement is itself largely a scam. The Economist has a different word for it.

“For most companies. . . CSR is little more than a cosmetic treatment,” the Economist wrote in 2005. “The human face that CSR applies to capitalism goes on each morning, gets increasingly smeared by day, and washed off at night.”

Nothing substantive has happened since 2005 to change that searing indictment. Yes, CSR has great potential. Yes, some of its corporate supporters may indeed be serious reformers, not scam artists. Yes, religious and other groups use CSR principles to pressure companies like Nike to conduct themselves accordingly. It’s a lever against firms concerned about their brand-name reputation.

But the CSR lever is weak. Overrating it is a serious error. Why? Because it lends credence to the illusion that CSR is solving the global problems of the nature described by Pope Benedict in his new encyclical and by Maryann Cusimano Love in her summary of the encyclical published in the August 3 issue.

The world economy is in crisis today because it suffers from “governance gaps” where sweatshops and other grave social and moral evils thrive. Thanks to current international law, investors and business people are privileged to operate globally under rights without matching responsibilities.

So it should be no surprise that Pope Bendict praises “the strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform” of the world’s inter-governmental institutions. He mentions only the United Nations by name but adds “economic institutions and finance,” a generic way of including other key inter-governmental organizations, especially those dealing with international trade and investment, with the World Trade Organization at the top of that pyramid.

The Pope repeatedly emphasizes, as a general principle, the need to balance rights and responsibilities. He gets very specific when it comes to two highly controversial subjects:

-- Responsibility of investors: The positive side of the reform movement already underway in the global financial system, he wrote, should be further developed, “highlighting the responsibility of the investor.”
-- Intellectual property protection: “On the part of rich countries, there is an excessive zeal for…an unduly rigid assertion of the right to protect intellectual property, especially in the field of health care.”

Just those two reforms, if adopted and implemented in international trade and investment pacts, would be major breakthroughs in globalization and in what the Pope calls “integral human development.” But both reforms are outside the stated CSR goals. Both are vigorously opposed by the business and financial community in the United States and beyond.

In fact, it so happens that rigid protection of intellectual property and investor rights are two key features of the three pending U.S. trade agreements signed by President Bush – and are also two major reasons for rejecting them. The media, Wall Street, and the Wall Streeters in the Obama administration all want the President to pressure Congress to ratify them.

Hopefully, he will have the backbone and good sense to say No we won't.

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