Debate: can CSR be greenwashing?

Washing instructions that could be Green. (Image used with CC license. Click for source)

Washing instructions that could be Green. (Image used with CC license. Click for source)

One of the key debates that we need to get into in this challenge is the extent to which corporations are best able to solve the problems created by corporations, alone and in competition with eachother. A recent post on the Corporate Citizenship Briefing blog outlines the arguments, referring to the Rana Plaza collapse and responses to it by corporations, unions, governments and NGOs.

Charlie Ashford takes a look at a new book that claims to expose CSR as a sham – and asks where the future lies for responsible and sustainable business.

… Some companies undoubtedly use CSR to “greenwash” unethical practices, but is it fair to tar everyone with the same brush? Many global companies are now disclosing their impacts and engaging with stakeholders in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Last year’s tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh exposed the gulf between lofty corporate policies and real-world practices, especially when it comes to complex global supply chains. But it has been followed by a concerted, legally-binding effort by over 100 corporations to work with local unions, the government and international NGOs to improve conditions.

NGOs are increasingly finding real value in engaging with the private sector. Far from accusing them of siphoning state power, Oxfam last year called on food companies to use their influence to change laws on land rights. Meanwhile, Greenpeace forest campaigners recently surprised some by shaking hands with executives from Asia Pulp and Paper. As Greenpeace UK’s Executive Director, John Sauven, put it, “We want to protect the environment… If businesses commit to doing that, I don’t see any problem shaking hands with them.” However, for every future-focused, sustainable business, won’t there always be those just out to make a quick profit? [In John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want’s new book, The Poverty of Capitalism, the] basic argument – that unscrupulous companies have too much power – still carries a lot of weight. He lists historical wrongdoers such as United Fruit and Union Carbide to show what happens when profit trumps all else. I started to wonder who would go on the opposite list, and why. From Cadbury and Rowntree’s through to The Body Shop and Patagonia, these pioneering companies all have one thing in common – they have turned responsible business into business as usual. …

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