Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Untangling Corporate Social Responsibility

A recent study by the Spanish consumer organisation CECU found that 70% of consumers don’t know what Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) means. While some within the consumer movement may also argue that most corporations don’t know what CSR means either, the lack of understanding among Spanish consumers is a real challenge to those trying to put corporate accountability on the public agenda.

However, a far more encouraging statistic from the same survey found that, despite being baffled by the language, 75% of Spanish consumers would consume more responsibly if they had better access to information about what companies are doing in terms of social and environmental commitments. This is a trend we have seen from similar surveys conducted by CI member organisations across Europe.

So all is not lost! In fact, this kind of result arguably demonstrates consumers are ahead of the trend when it comes to ethical consumption and production. Whilst the experts and activists clamour over the semantics of CSR, ETI, FLO or FTSE4Good, the vast majority of consumers just want to be better informed.

That’s why CI is working to establish ISO 26000. Yes, it’s another bit of geek-speak, and yes, this one does sound like defunct model of home computer from the 1980’s; but it is in fact an unprecedented attempt to establish an international standard for CSR. So consumers everywhere can, at a glance, be sure a company is meeting globally agreed criteria for social and environmental behaviour.

The International Organization of Standardization, ISO, is a multi-stakeholder system that sets quality and safety standards for a whole range of consumer goods. National standards bodies use the ISO system to guarantee safety standards on everything from plugs to power drills.

ISO 26000, or ISO-SR as the parlance has it, has had governments, industry and NGOs huddled round negotiating tables in dark rooms for several years now. But recent developments have signalled significant progress, with the consumer movement leading the charge.

Pushed by CI, the process is now reaching favourable consensus on key criteria: the ‘precautionary principle’ to ensure biotechnology and nanotechnolgy cannot be unleashed without vigorous consumer protection guarantees; conditions on the ‘sphere of influence’ so companies cannot claim to be socially responsible if their suppliers are not; and greater availability of information on sustainable consumption alternatives.

All this means that, eventually, consumers the world over could be able to judge a company’s ethical criteria to an internationally recognised, independent standard. Much like we do with electrical goods today.

So Spain's consumers may untangle the meaning of CSR yet!

Find out more about CSR and consumers at www.consumersinternational.org/csr

1 comment:

  1. It is very interesting to learn that soon CI will spearhead the establishment of an international Standard for CSR (ISO 26000). The UN Global Compact (UNGC)could serve as one of the guiding principles. In Ghana, a CSR Code with the brand name 'Ghana Business Code' has been developed in line with UNGC by Ghana's 3 main Business Associations commiting businesses to compliance with four main ethical principles in line with the UNGC on issues relating to Human Rights, Labour Standards, Environment and Anti-Corruption.

    Wishing you all the best in your efforts to institutionalise CSR.

    Anita D'Almeida, Ghana, West Africa
    anitadalmeida@yahoo.com; anidjo@um.dk