Editorial: CSR poses awkward questions

MT has gone big on responsibility in this issue: how do you do the right thing and become a 'good' company?

by Matthew Gwyther, MT editor
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Over the past two years this question has veered in one direction. When we last looked at the subject of CSR in depth, climate change was something you sought out by heading south for the sun on holiday. Now the perils of global warming threaten to engulf the whole CSR debate, as businesses fall over each other to reduce emissions, swap Prius for Porsche and get sustainable.

This is all well and good, but it's important that other equally pressing issues about how business functions within communities are not forgotten. For this reason we've chosen to profile Julia Cleverdon, head of Business In The Community, in this edition. She is a legendary persuader to whom nobody, even the most callous, can say no. I attended one of BITC's 'Seeing Is Believing' visits last year with some big business cheeses. We looked at schools in deprived areas of London and left with Julia's message that tea and sympathy were not enough: businesses must get involved to improve things.

The whole CSR debate is beginning to mature. In enlightened firms it is no longer the preserve of the corporate affairs department, and that has to be a good thing. But this maturation is also teasing out dissenting voices from strange sources. Take the economist Robert Reich, for example, Bill Clinton's former labor secretary. Reich now believes that CSR is bunk and that business 'cannot be socially responsible, at least not to any significant extent'. He refutes the argument that the good company is the more profitable company. And he argues that it's the job of government, not business, to set the rules of the game and to bring about the necessary social changes.

The economic benefits of CSR remain unclear, as Richard Reeves points out in our cover feature. There is, as yet, little evidence that significant numbers of consumers conduct thorough ethical audits of their purchases. And who can blame them? The dilemmas are complex and time-consuming.

Do you give up on fair trade products from the developing world if they've travelled too many food miles on 747 freighters coming into Heathrow? And if you do, what about the families back in Kenya to whom you have given economic hope only to snatch it away? Which do we save first: hungry babies or melting polar ice caps? CSR is here to stay. It's not yes or no but 'What do we do?'

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