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The Drive for Corporate Social Responsibility

Pressure from campaigning organizations in the fields of environmental protection and human rights helped spur the movement toward greater corporate responsibility. Today, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a burgeoning field, encompassing corporate ethics, workplace issues, and environmental as well as human rights concerns.

Growing numbers of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are monitoring corporate practices against basic standards, including human rights. The news media also increasingly scrutinize corporate conduct. Ethically-minded investors and consumers are demanding more from the companies with which they do business. CSR advocates now find greater numbers of sympathetic listeners in government and corporate headquarters.

In part the ground is shifting because of the impact of globalization on businesses.  Companies now commonly operate in a wide variety of locations, not just in their own country or in like-minded locales. Their products and brand names reach all corners of the globe, as do the news media that follow their activities. In some of the countries that host their operations, the clout of multinational corporations rivals or exceeds that of the national government.

There is no sign that these trends are letting up. In the current environment, public advocacy for CSR can only be expected to increase and to spotlight more and more instances of corporations implicated in abuse.

There is plenty to focus on. Workers the world over still struggle to assert their rights in the face of company indifference and government inaction. Harmful child labor, unsafe conditions, and discrimination—not to mention the deprivation of workers’ rights to free association and collective bargaining—remain all too common throughout both the developed and developing world.

In areas of violent conflict and instability, the pursuit of profits without human rights safeguards can fuel a range of abuses, including torture, forced labor, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. All too often, companies cozy up to local armed groups to get access to lucrative resources, or buy smuggled goods from killers who use the proceeds to purchase weapons.

In response to increasing public attention to the role corporations can play in facilitating human rights abuse, recent years have seen a proliferation of voluntary initiatives on corporate social responsibility. A number of CSR initiatives explicitly address human rights, along with environmental and other issues. By way of illustration, some 2,300 global companies have endorsed the United Nations Global Compact, a modest voluntary commitment to abide by ten ethical principles, including respect for human rights. Voluntary corporate commitments to human rights, however, can be demonstrably inadequate, as the following example shows.


<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006