CSR vs plain old good business ethics

Are we seeing a rise in corporate responsibility among big business? Writing in the Financial Times (‘When making shampoo becomes a service to society’) Gillian Tett believes there is a rising tide of CSR among corporate execs. Tett chaired a panel of business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos and reports that companies from Nestlé to Wipro, the Indian technology group, are expanding CSR programmes in response to consumer and employee demand.

Sir Michael Littlechild, the chief exec and co-founded of the Good Corporation, is more sceptical. He believes it’s about good business ethics rather than social responsibility. Consumers, he says, are not fooled by philanthropic practices that mask companies’ dirtier business practices.

Businesses, according to Sir Michael in his letter to the FT, ‘should be held responsible primarily for their products and the way they make them. Conscience-stricken consumers do not want their shampoo to harm either the environment or their health. They also care that the manufacturer and its suppliers don’t pay bribes, have paid decent living wages to employees who work in safe conditions and have not polluted rivers (even if the government of the country doesn’t care).’ This, according to him, adds up to good business ethics, not social responsibility.

It appears that Gillian Tett agrees. She believes it is the primary responsibility of governments — not companies — to ‘make countries better’ and to set the social agenda.

So why are all corporate websites awash with CSR rather than good business ethics? In the last 12 months the ethical spotlight has been on the financial community while traditional business seems to be concentrating on community building, rural development in the countries in which they operate or battling AIDS in Africa (Coca Cola). But is this not the responsibility of government? What’s your view?