What is corporate responsibility and how can I identify it?

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What is corporate responsibility? Try answering this question and you enter an Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass world where nothing is what is seems.

A few years ago – BAE Systems was criticised because it said it was working on ‘environmentally friendly’ munitions, including lead free bullets. Its spokesman replied that being an arms manufacturer was in no way incompatible with wanting to be environmentally responsible. Is corporate responsibility about the What, the How, or both?

The pharmaceutical industry can be equally perplexing. The big corporations are accused of raking in immoral profits yet paying low tax rates after taking advantage of generous government subsidy.  Is it mainly the choice of business model that determines corporate responsibility?

I read that the great Jesse Boot – the man who transformed the company founded by his father into a national retailer – spent his early childhood helping his father by foraging for herbs and plants that could be used in his medicines. After taking over the shop,

‘Jesse’s sole purpose was to enable affordable healthcare solutions for the whole community. He used this purpose as the driving force for every business decision he made.’

I wonder what today’s investment bankers would make of that business model. The Guardian tells me about a 2018 report by Goldman Sachs which asks, ‘Is Curing patients a Sustainable Business Model?’ and concludes that the answer is no.

And I found this a few years ago:

‘Download this white paper to learn more about how corporate responsibility can:

• Create Consumer Trust & Increase Sales • Strengthen Brand Image & Loyalty • Create Employee Morale & Attract Employees’

In an age when a serious scientist has described the recent increase in temperature as ‘gobsmackingly bananas’ how can the world of corporate responsibility still accommodate people so seemingly content with ‘Business as Usual?’ As Michael Solomon of Responsible 100 put it recently:

Corporate responsibility is such a loaded and abused term. We’ve seen this huge industry blossom, while we’ve sped faster and faster into this age of collapse’.

So words are easy and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The abiding question which then follows is – ‘how we can judge the responsibility shown by different companies and how can we be sure’? Which companies do I buy from, work for or invest in if I truly want to be helping to advance the cause of responsible business.

Which Companies Should I Buy from, Work for or Invest in?

What are the principles by which we want businesses to operate? And how do we know that they live by those principles?

There are many initiatives and frameworks which now set out to deal with this question.

Next month at the Anthropy conference we have invited some of the leading champions of these frameworks to come together and explain their unique approaches.

We will be asking each of them what is the problem that your initiative or framework is seeking to solve? What are the underlying principles in your approach? How can I be sure that you do what you claim to do?  

Ahead of this event we have prepared a survey which asks people to consider which elements of corporate responsibility they think to be the most important.

It doesn’t take long – 5 minutes should do it. Here is the link.

It wasn’t easy to design the survey. There are so many elements to a responsible company and so many different expectations of companies we may have. It isn’t enough for companies to claim things. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

While I was thinking about these questions I came across a Twitter (X) thread from Matthew Taylor, recent CEO of the RSA. (He’s now CEO of the NHS Confederation, but these comments were written in a personal capacity.) He was describing his experience on finding a lost wallet.

‘Near my house I found a wallet in the road. When opening it I found a bank card, some cash, a library and a youth club card. And also a front door key. The person who dropped it is 14 and could be locked out so I set out to find him. I started with massively profitable MNC Barclays Bank… After 36 minutes the phone was answered. I explained the situation………. I asked the customer service person to contact the person (they have his phone number) and tell him we have the wallet and are happy to return it. We were told this was ‘against protocol’. After 15 minutes of failed persuasion and being told it would do no good speaking to someone senior I gave up.

‘Then – Plan B – I contacted the cash-strapped York library service. The lady answered the phone in less than a minute. By the time I had explained and given the boy’s library number she had already identified the boy’s mother’s email and offered to immediately contact her. A minute later……the boy’s mum grateful phoned me and told me where to take the wallet. ‘My son is autistic so he would have been very anxious so this is such a relief’ she explained.

To me this story is a parable of our times. Corporate responsibility is not some abstract concept of stakeholder accountability. It has to start with an organisation that treats people as you and I would like to be treated.

Whether we have managed to capture this dimension in our survey is something you can judge for yourself! Please participate!

Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company. Together with Responsible 100, Tomorrow’s Company is organising a series of events around the theme of A Twenty-First Century Economy at Anthropy which takes place at The Eden Project from 1-3 November 2023.

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