The Bottom Line
Corporate social responsibility works, and progressives shouldn’t abandon it. A response to Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin.
It is surprising and a bit disheartening to see two progressive thinkers embrace an old canard frequently found in the pages of the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and other business-oriented publications: the notion that the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement has “misguided” progressives into thinking that large companies can be “cajoled” into undertaking socially conscious activities. Yet Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin make precisely this argument in “Corporate Social Irresponsibility” [Issue #3]. In advising progressives to turn away from CSR, the authors perpetuate the myth that companies must choose between profits and responsible business practices.
To be fair, Chatterji and Listokin do not attack all CSR; they concede the validity of “strategic CSR,” which they define as business behavior in which a “management team is engaging in an activity that can have a positive impact on society [while] also acting in the interests of their bosses, namely the company’s shareholders.” Instead, the bulk of their attack is reserved for what they deem “nonstrategic CSR,” or “business behavior that is at direct odds with short- and (reasonably) long-term profit maximization.” As attorneys in the only stand-alone CSR legal practice of a U.S.-based law firm, we proffer that all responsible CSR is in fact “strategic CSR.” We have never seen one of our large multinational clients undertake a CSR program that is “nonstrategic,” as Chatterji and Listokin define it. Indeed, that term appears to be merely a convenient strawman.
Chatterji and Listokin’s first mistake is underestimating the strategic thinking of corporate managers. Smart business leaders are rarely bullied into adopting CSR practices that are not beneficial to the interests of their shareholders. Nevertheless, the growing importance of a wide spectrum of stakeholders to a company’s bottom line has fundamentally changed business calculations over the past few decades. In today’s global economy, a successful company can no longer be concerned solely with its shareholders, employees, and consumers. It must also take into account issues related to the activities of suppliers and business partners; national and local governments; international financial institutions; multilateral organizations; the media; educational institutions; and a wide spectrum of advocacy and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including human rights, environmental, consumer, labor, and religious groups. Thus, just as globalization is here to stay, so too is CSR, which provides companies with an invaluable tool to manage the risks of the globalized marketplace, in part by meeting the concerns of these stakeholders.
These risks are significant. In U.S. courts, for example, companies face legal liability under federal laws like the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA)–which allows non-citizens to bring civil claims in federal courts–as well as state tort laws and federal and state sanctions statutes. At least 40 ATCA cases have been brought against more than 100 companies since 1993, many alleging complicity in human rights abuses abroad. Billions of dollars have been sought in damages from these companies, leading not only to significant legal defense fees and lost opportunity costs, but also to some high-profile settlements (such as that involving energy giant Unocal in a case alleging rights violations in Burma). Companies may also be sued in non-U.S. fora that similarly provide for civil liability stemming from breaches of fundamental human rights, such as torture and forced labor.
Reputational damage caused by allegations of poor human rights practices can be even more immediate, and potentially even more significant, than legal risks. While Chatterji and Listokin disparage the reputational effects of CSR initiatives, strategic business managers recognize that sound CSR practices can forestall or avoid boycotts, hostile shareholder resolutions, divestment efforts, attacks on corporate property, negative media attention, and NGO campaigns. When its “brand” is perhaps its most valuable asset, a company must seek to protect its reputation in any way possible. For example, as a result of its operations in Sudan, Talisman Energy experienced what industry experts called a “Sudan discount” of its share price. In a 2002 Toronto Globe and Mail article, one financial analyst stated that, as a result of this “discount,” Talisman traded at about five times enterprise value while its peers traded at six times the same multiple. The analyst also predicted that once Talisman’s Sudan asset was sold, the company’s stock value would rise. Indeed, Talisman ultimately sold its stake in the Sudanese operations in 2003 and put in place an extremely robust CSR program. As a result, industry analysts and NGOs have credited it with making notable progress in resuscitating not only its reputation but also its stock price. Chatterji and Listokin do not appear to question other expenditures that have a non-quantifiable but positive impact on share price, such as p.r. or advertising dollars, yet when this money is directed instead at systemic CSR efforts that help to improve a company’s reputation without merely “greenwashing” it, they balk.
To be sure, some companies undertake CSR endeavors solely for reputational advantages. But evidence demonstrates that implementing comprehensive CSR programs can produce a range of significant and tangible benefits for companies, in addition to burnishing their reputations. In a study for the World Bank examining corporate codes of conduct, we found that business leaders reported more stable workforces, enhanced relationships with host governments, and easier compliance with post-Enron corporate governance reforms due to their CSR initiatives. Similarly, in a project we undertook to develop human rights training programs for a consortium of petroleum companies, corporate representatives told us that they were driven to implement more and better CSR mechanisms not simply out of fear of liability and risk, but also for positive business reasons including brand protection, increased customer and employee loyalty and retention, better morale, the ability to anticipate and manage business risks more effectively, improved relationships with stakeholders and public opinion leaders, and the ability to respond better to the growth of socially responsible investment opportunities.
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