Responsible Business? Campaigning Trends and Engagement Lessons

By David Ritter - 30 May 2012

The question of what constitutes ‘responsible business’ is a source of political, academic and policy debate - and a regular subject of this blog.  Earlier this month a range of business and other delegates came together to discuss the subject at the 11th Annual Responsible Business Summit convened by Ethical Corporation Magazine in London.  The presentations from the event have now been uploaded here

In my talk to the conference, I outlined four key campaigning trends and engagement lessons, each of which has previously been touched on in this blog.  (The other only other NGO presenter was from Action Aid, talking about their excellent tax justice campaign, which will be the subject of a future blog).

First, in terms of campaign trends, the world’s focus is shifting inexorably to the fate of the Arctic, which will be decided in this generation. As Michael Jacobs – a former No 10 adviser now at the LSE has noted, the fight over the Arctic ‘may prove to be the defining environmental battle of this decade’.  The implications for business are very clear.  Any company engaged in industrial resource exploration in the Arctic – of which Shell is currently the most prominent – simply forfeits any claim to being a ‘responsible business’.  Given what is at stake, even to be associated with Shell represents a real reputational risk.

Second, and again in terms of campaign trends, NGOs are increasingly looking beyond the usual corporate suspects for campaign targets.  For example (and as readers of this blog will know) the global management consultancy McKinsey has been targeted by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation for its ‘bad influence’ on deforestation.  In McKinsey’s case – and to be brutally frank – for a global management consultancy that makes its living telling other people what to do, they’ve made a real mess out of how they have responded to being a campaign target.  Whatever advice McKinsey may give to their clients, it is as if The Firm itself does not have a grasp of the most basic principles of corporate engagement with civil society.

Third, when values shift and become culturally embedded, it is essential for business to move with the times.  The transformation of attitudes to marine conservation in the UK is an example.  Commitment to marine conservation has now simply become part of the UK’s cultural identity.  Any business that views the situation differently risks not only being out of tune with community sentiment, but transgressing national values.  It is no accident that iconic brands like Selfridges, Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys are all now deeply associated with the marine conservation agenda. But no business ever wants to be on the wrong side of a major cultural shift. 

Fourth, this blog has previously railed against faith in the ‘CSR fairy’, and it is a disenchantment that is increasingly shared throughout the NGO world.  Constructive engagement with business actors is of course not to be dismissed, but individual corporate epiphanies do not change the fundamentals.  We may all want a healthy and sustainable planet, but the profit imperative facing individual businesses and the broader functioning of political economy will over-ride personal inclination unless there is also structural change.  We must all work within the world as we find it, not as we wish that it was. 


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