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New Voices: CSR needs Global Business Standards

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29 July 2008 16:46

Guest blogger: Dr Edward Morgan (pictured) from the Australian Catholic University has this contribution to our New Voices thread:

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become something of a corporate catch-phrase. It means any number of things to different people,  and this diversity of definition can function well for its various users. Yet something without definition cannot have force, and something that has no force cannot work for the good.

The time has come for corporate leaders to act ahead of the regulatory pack and develop a framework of business self-identity and practice. CSR needs Global Business Standards (GBS), a functioning motor of self-regulation which defines the realities and sets reasonable expectations of CSR. GBS would be a corporate-developed set of ethical benchmarks characterising ethical business practice and framing the context in which business ethics must function. Something less than a UN Declaration of Human Rights and more than the Codes of Conduct operative within corporations, GBS would draw together the common CSR interests of corporations and provide an agreed point of ethical reference for the conduct of business activities.

CSR goes back to at least the 1920s. The 'community chest movement' saw businesses opened up to the demands of non-business professionals on how businesses could help resolve social problems. Milton Friedman expressed the exact opposite of the sentiments motivating CSR when he said: 'the only…social responsibility of business [is] to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.'  To this day, there are those who see CSR as ultimately embodying the idea of the true 'values' enshrined by good business and those who argue that there is no 'business case' for CSR.

Is CSR a force, or just a response to forces already in play? Where climate change is one of the most publicly demanding contemporary CSR contexts, how can businesses protect their financial interests and ensure that they preserve their base-asset of a functioning natural and political environment? Climate change reveals the complexity of CSR: it will bring business opportunities to some as quickly as it will demolish climate-hostile enterprise for others. But if CSR is to be a force, it requires a carefully developed benchmark of self-regulation.

GBS is an opportunity to provide force and definition where the present CSR situation has not yet adapted to the complexities of the global economy. GBS would acknowledge the increasingly global character of business interests while placing a stamp on the baseline of ethical business practice. GBS would function as an engine of good business practice that drives the concerns of regulators away from legal stricture while formalising the nascent concerns of the CSR movement.

Created by corporations and CSR think tanks in conversation with government, GBS would capture the winds of CSR change and marshal them into a self-developing mandate: one that reflects the ethical baselines of business practice as well as the particularities of business as distinct from law, politics or plain good-will. GBS is the chance for business to remain distinctively business, without the confusing mélange of law, politics and corporate interest in which CSR presently invests.

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