The calamity of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to put corporate reputation as a subject very much in the spotlight and, hardly surprisingly, many commentators contrast BP’s past attempts to claim the moral highground on environmental matters with the stark reality of what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. The idea that corporations should be “socially responsible” whilst fashionable is not new – and it remains an extremely controversial concept. Let me try and delve into what Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) really means – and explain that all too often CSR has been just a tool of a company’s reputation management/Public Relations activities rather than something that sets strict behavioural norms. In all too many cases CSR reports are selective, partial and glossy window-dressing – leading to charges of “Greenwash” – rather than true reflections of a corporation’s actual non-financial (Health, Safety, Environment etc.) performance.

It is no exaggeration to say that that over the past two hundred years or so virtually everything that we value – even take for granted – about our way of life has happened because of the operation of regulated free markets. I put the adjective “regulated” in this statement not to over-emphasise the need for laws, rules and controls but to suggest that whilst the principal driver of progress and change has been the action of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial corporations a measure of regulation has always been necessary. If the first half of the nineteenth century was the age of untrammelled industrial growth the 150 years since then has been no less spectacular – but there has been, as there needed to be, increasing legal restraint on corporate behaviour.

There has always been the same dynamic underway between free-enterprise companies and regulators – mainly governments. The companies from Standard Oil through Philip Morris to Microsoft always argue that any regulation of their freedoms will inhibit their business to the disadvantage of their customers and, most important of all, their shareholders. They harp back, in sprit if not always in rhetoric, to Adam Smith who said:

“Every individual endeavours to employ his capital so that its produce may be of the greatest value. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own security, only his own gain… [but] by pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than he really intends to promote it”. Adam Smith in “the Wealth of Nations”. 1776

The argument of Smith was that the pursuit of self-interest is inevitable and desirable and that an unintended consequence is that society is thereby “effectually” promoted. This theory is a bit like “trickle-down economics” – let us entrepreneurs get on with running businesses and benefits will cascade to all – even the worthy poor. Well not long after Smith his theory was tested as the nineteenth century Industrial revolution took hold in Europe and the United States. Before the century was out a raft of legislation was enacted to restrain industry as it became abundantly clear that whilst industrialisation brought many benefits it brought horrendous unintended consequences as well – from child labour to exploitation of workers to unsafe working conditions and monopoly power – and more. The break-up of the monopolistic Standard Oil in 1911 was amongst the most dramatic of instances where Government saw the need to restrain business in the public interest – but there are hundreds of other examples. It is no exaggeration to say that each successive wave of legislation was resisted by business – and that companies often claimed that self-regulation would be sufficient and that laws were unnecessary. In more modern times we have seen the tobacco industry fighting tooth and nail not to have to restrain the promotion of their brands and products – and we have seen self-interested bodies like the International Advertising Association (IAA) supporting them. To this day the IAA says, in respect of tobacco advertising, that they “believe in the right to truthfully and responsibly advertise legal products to appropriate audiences and oppose efforts to restrict such advertising.” The “Mad Men” live on!

The reason for this lengthy preamble on the history of regulation is to put the modern-day CSR debate into a historical context. There has always been a battle between legislators and businesses and one of the business defences has always been “Trust us – what we do is in the public interest and we accept the responsibility to police ourselves”. However that most free-market of all economists, Milton Friedman, poured scorn on the idea that companies could or should be self-regulating over and above their legal obligations. Here is what Friedman said in 1962:

“The doctrine of “social responsibility” [is a] fundamentally subversive doctrine in a free society … in such a society there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” Milton Friedman in “Capitalism and Freedom” 1962

Whatever else he might have been Friedman was no hypocrite and he abhorred obfuscation and window-dressing. Whilst he would no doubt have had no problem with the idea of lobbying to influence legislators he would have resisted any “voluntary codes” and overblown statements of “Business Principles”. What, for example, would he have thought of this statement in the 1999 Annual Report of a major American corporation:

“Our philosophy is not to stand in the way of our employees, so we don’t insist on hierarchical approval. We do, however, keep a keen eye on how prudent they are and rigorously evaluate and control the risk involved in each of our activities”?

Whilst Friedman might have applauded the broad sentiment he would not of course have condoned any illegal behaviour and lack of internal controls. When the true story of Enron (for this is from their Report) emerged then Friedman’s general position was vindicated. Enron did not stay “within the rules of the game” and broke the law in almost everything that they did. Whatever self-policing there was (and most of it was in reality non-existent) failed abysmally.

Enron lied about most things so it is not surprising that they lied about their internal controls. But much less venal companies fall into a similar trap in some of their rhetoric – not least in their so-called commitment to the principles of Sustainable Development. Here, for example, is what Mark Moody-Stuart said on the subject when he was head of Shell: ” [Sustainability] is a three-legged stool balanced between economic, environment and social considerations”. This type of rhetoric has been common amongst those who believe that companies’ commitments to CSR really are meaningful – it is par for the course. Milton Friedman would have been horrified at the underlying premise of the “three-legged stool” – that there is a precise equivalence between a company’s economic driver and its social and environmental behaviours. Note that there has to be equivalence if the metaphor is to work. If one leg is longer than the others are then the stool is unbalanced and falls over! In reality, as we see time and time again, the economic driver is far, far more important than any incidental social and environmental obligations that a company may propound. The line of questioning that BP CEO Tony Hayward faced recently in the U.S. Congress was substantially about whether cost and profit issues (Economic) had outweighed Environmental considerations in BP’s decision making regarding Deepwater Horizon.

So history teaches us that we should be deeply sceptical about any corporation’s claim to self-regulation or allusion to “Principles” over and above their legal obligations. Not least because the directors of corporations have a statutory and fiduciary duty always to act in the interest of shareholders – and shareholders interests are monetary above all. A shareholder wants stock prices to perform well and dividends to be good – and that’s about it! And the Directors want the same thing – their bonuses, stock options and performance-related remuneration rely on it! So the more self-righteous and superior Companies seem to be in their CSR statements the more sceptical we should be! Some companies make their position on social responsibility matters crystal clear and with a pleasing lack of hype. The often-vilified Ryanair is one. In their “Code of Ethics” they say:

“Ryanair is committed to conducting business in an ethical fashion that complies with all laws and regulations in the countries in which Ryanair operates. As employees and representatives of Ryanair, we must consider how our actions affect the integrity and credibility of the Company as a whole”

Contrast this frankness (Friedman would have been proud of Ryanair!) with the page after page of “Business Principles” bombast and self-congratulatory hype in the Annual Report of British American Tobacco which includes the following two “core beliefs” (there are a dozen or so more of these platitudes):

  • We believe our businesses should uphold high standards of behaviour and integrity.
  • We believe that high standards of corporate social responsibility should be promoted within the tobacco industry.

This from a corporation that actively seeks to promote its brands and noxious products wherever it can – especially in the developing world! If ever there was an oxymoronic statement it is the idea of “corporate social responsibility “within the tobacco industry“. Mad Men again!

Multinational corporations sometimes claim that their commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility are such that they always apply their own global standards of behaviour – which means that that will override local standards where those local standards are lower. BP, for example, says:

We are proud to set universal standards of behaviour across our entire operation developing our own set of rigorous guidelines – [which are] often more rigorous than local laws and regulations”.

Intellectually, of course the logic of this is inescapable. If your CSR commitment is absolute then even if you don’t legally need to apply your standards you will do so anyway – because that is what you believe in. Sadly, however, this is all too often a chimera. As The Guardian’s environment correspondent John Vidal put it recently in respect of BP’s Gulf of Mexico problems “If this accident had occurred in a developing country, say off the west coast of Africa or Indonesia, BP could probably have avoided all publicity and escaped starting a clean-up for many months.” Vidal is right. Similarly if Shell had been treating an oil field in the U.S. or Europe in the way that it has its assets in the Niger Delta, where 2,000 major spillage sites have never been cleaned up, then the political and media fallout would be similar to what BP is now struggling with in the United States.

So what does Corporate Social Responsibility really mean? It is not about putting a favourable gloss on a company’s activities and drawing a veil over its less salubrious actions. It is not about being a generous donor to charities, however commendable that may be – you cannot buy yourself a good reputation by making donations to good causes. It is not about a re-branding or stakeholder engagement programme – however useful such things may be from time to time. What it is about is first and foremost obeying the law – and then, if you believe it is necessary and in the interests of shareholders, going the extra mile in respect of your health, safety, environment and community relations behaviour (etc.). It means respecting all your stakeholders – especially including those, like suppliers of goods and services and often employees and sub-contractors, over whom you may have the whip hand. These commitments have to be codified, managed, funded and rigorously and consistently applied. In my view there are few if any big companies and perhaps no multinational corporations that have such a commitment and act with such integrity – although some of course are better than others. Which is why it is only by regulation at a national and international level that society at large can be protected – history teaches us nothing less!

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