Stepping back from the day to day, we should at times ask what is happening in the world of corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability, as a field of interest, and to the voluntary pursuit of responsible or sustainable behaviour by business people? To answer that we can try to consider what is happening in the worlds of business and society more broadly.
In 2008 we are experiencing the same megatrends that have made this area of interest more important in the last 15 years: continuing challenges with our environment, increasing inequalities, persistent poverty and injustices, and a continuing situation where economic globalisation has given some corporations more power in relation to governments and communities, but where people also have new opportunities to connect and to pursue business for social purposes. But this year three developments are becoming clearer that are particularly interesting for how the field of corporate responsibility (CR) may develop:
- The Financial Crisis
- The “Rise of the Rest”
- Rising environmental awareness across the South
Implications of the financial crisis
The stock market is crashing around the world, exchange rates are volatile, and credit is expensive or unavailable, there is recession in the West, and a slowing rate growth in the rest of the world. Therefore people are beginning to ask the following questions:
- Is CSR recession proof? Meaning: is the voluntary pursuit of responsible business going to suffer when budgets are squeezed. Is CSR a choice? Articles in blogs and magazines are asking about that.
- Has most responsible business activity been irrelevant, beside the point, not focused on the basic issues of governance and economic systems? This was asked in 2001 after Enron collapse, and is being asked again, this time also in terms of the work on socially responsible finance and investment.
- Will people demand deep reform of the financial system, and therefore perhaps the wider economic system? The questions about executive pay are now mainstream. Litigation is beginning. People are becoming aware of the licence to print money that is given to banks and thus their shareholders and employees that is enshrined in a monetary system based on the issuing of debt by private banks.
- Will values change? As people question the unrestrained pursuit of financial self interest, and as people fall on hard times, will people think again about themselves and their neighbours?
- Will neoliberal ideology around deregulation and market approaches be fractured and new ideas emerge about managing capitalism and if so how will voluntary corporate responsibility efforts relate to that?
Implications of the “Rise of the Rest”
The current financial crisis is hitting the whole world, but it originates in the late industrial countries we call “the West” and is having a greater impact on both their financial systems and real economies, while also undermining the basis of the West’s levels of power and consumption in recent decades – cheap credit. Many nations in the Middle East and Asia have huge reserves and are now investing this through Sovereign Wealth Funds. The fundamentals of many Asian economies remain strong. The growing role of non-Western companies around the world, in influencing the lives of workers, communities and their environments, is shaping the future landscape of corporate responsibility challenges and initiatives. Therefore some people are beginning to ask the following questions, albeit not the mainstream CSR practitioners, most of whom are yet to awaken to the implications of these shifts:
- Will non-Western companies experience the same pressures for adopting voluntary corporate responsibility as Western companies have in recent years?
- Will investors and consumers in non-Western countries become aware of what is done throughout the value chains of the products and services they benefit from, will they care, and will they be able to express that in behavioural change?
- Will managers in non-Western companies see it more as government’s role to manage social and environmental issues, not a part of their own work as globally responsible business leaders?
- Will voluntary corporate responsibility continue to be seen as a Western import by many non Western business leaders, and thus seen as doing whats required by Western consumers rather than emerging from your own community’s values? If so, what might happen if the West becomes less important to their businesses?
- Will the Sovereign Wealth Funds compound problems with disengaged bottom-line focused share ownership, rather than active responsible investment, due to political pressure not to engage with the management of the companies they invest in?
- Will new initiatives emerge from the rest of the world that are persuing values through the private sector in ways that might affect the lives of workers and communities in the West and how will the West react to that, especially if the values are culturally specific?
- Will the rhetorical power of universal principles relating to human rights and dignity that are enshrined in conventions of the United Nations become less authorative if that organisation is increasingly challenged as an anachronism of the World War II settlement? How might moral power on the global scene evolve?
- As Western philanthropy wanes, due to the stock market crash, and Eastern and Southern philanthropy grows, what are the implications for civil society organisations, everywhere, and at the international level? In turn, what are the implications for the way civil society shapes the field of corporate responsibility? Will different agendas begin to be favoured over others by the new philanthropy? How could the new philanthropists of Asia be encouraged to learn from the history of efforts at social change and play a useful social purpose, internationally?
Rising environmental awareness in Asia and ‘South’
Many people working on corporate responsibility have assumed that the drivers for voluntary responsible business are higher in the UK and Northern Europe than Southern or Eastern Europe, and higher than in North America, and in turn higher than in the rest of the world. This is largely put down to the levels of consumers and investor awareness, free media, and sizeable middle classes with disposable incomes, and thus with a level of discretion in their consumption and employment, as well as a reasonable level of philanthropy to support a civil society. People in the West and in the rest of the world have often articulated aspects of that view, to say that contemporary voluntary responsibility is a Western originated phenomenon. This seemed intuitive, but the evidence to back up this view was not systematically gathered. In 2008 some market research agencies, including WPP and IFOP did global studies on environmental awareness and consumer behaviour, and found that levels of concern about the environment are actually higher in parts of Asia, particularly in China, than in parts of Europe or in the USA. They also found higher levels of concern about the environment in Asia, when purchasing products. This is a major finding, and raises a number of questions, which are not being asked yet because not many people know about this data and are operating on the basis of a false assumption of a lack of interest in environmental issues:
- Is evidence of green consumer awareness across Asia and the South the product of poor research, rather than a real situation?
- If it is real, is this a new phenomenon and why is it happening?
- If it is real, does it stem from similar values to environmental consumer concern in the West, or from something else?
- Is this a widespread phenomenon and an early sign of a turning away from the major commercialisation of cultures in Asia and the rest of the world in the past decades?
- Could the pace of eco-modernisation in Asia be faster than in the West due to the stronger role of government in society?
- Are companies ready to provide the necessary environmentally preferable alternatives to help this awareness become behavioural change?
- Will the institutions to watch out for and punish greenwash be put in place fast enough to enable this new awareness to lead to effective behavioural change, rather than mistaken understandings and eventual disenchantment due to corporate greenwash?
- Could this wave of awareness lead to a wave of eco-innovation in Asia that could help solve some of the worlds resource and energy challenges, and how could that be supported?
In 2008 I have spent many months in Asia, meeting with people in the marketing and financial sectors, as well as the broader corporate responsibility arena, and the budding philanthropy sector, to develop some insights into these underlying trends that I believe will shape the future of business in society.
Some of the questions relating to the financial crisis I discuss in my new book “The Corporate Responsibility Movement” and in the forthcoming issue 31 of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship. In The Lifeworth Annual Review of 2008, to be published in late January, we will discuss all of these issues in further detail. In advance of that I’d welcome any thoughts on these issues…
I’m also looking forward to discussing these issues at the first Global Social Innovation Forum in Singapore in November. If you are interested in going, request an invite by mentioning my name to Erin Frey <email@example.com>