I believe strongly that business should take an expansive view of its role in society, but there are â€“ or should be â€“ limits to the scope of corporate social responsibility. Asking companies to solve every social problem is a bad idea, and one that can have unintended consequences. It becomes CSR run amok.
That, at least, is what I took away from a panel discussion that I moderated at a New York meeting of the Arthur W. Page Society, an organization of high-powered PR folk. (Nice to see familiar faces in the crowdâ€”Richard Edelman, Carol Cone, Carl Folta, Betty Hudson, Mike Lawrence). The panel was called The Buck Stops Where?, and I thoroughly enjoyed the give-and-take with two thoughtful CSR experts from academia, Jane Nelson of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Chris Pinney from Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship. But I came away worrying that the buck always seems to stop on the FORTUNE 500 CEOâ€™s desk. And that could be a problem.
Let me explain with a personal anecdote: After two months of relative inactivity due to a knee accident while skiing, Iâ€™ve put on a few pounds. I’m not happy about it, but it would not occur to me to lay the responsibility with the Breckenridge ski resort (the fall was my own doing), or with any of the dozens of food retailers, including Starbucks and Ben & Jerryâ€™s, that provided me with the calories that later settled onto my waistline. Their job is to sell product; mine is to decide how much to consume.
So why, pray tell, is the fact that tens of millions of Americans eat too much and exercise too little the fault or the responsibility of McDonald’s, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Kraft or any other food company? Obesity is, to be sure, a big social problem. It may well be a business opportunity for food companies that choose to sell healthier food, as McDonald’s and Pepsico have. Or for the makers of bicycles or treadmills, for that matter. But it’s not a CSR issue.
To say that obesity is a corporate responsibility is to blur the lines between individual, government and corporate responsibility. Although obesity is a social problem, responsibility for solving it rests, above all, with individuals. Itâ€™s not all that complicated, folks. People weigh too much because they take in more calories than they expend.
It is arguably a government responsibility, too. Schools ought to teach nutrition, serve healthy food, promote physical activity, etc. Iâ€™d argue that government should plan and regulate our public spaces in ways that encourage walking and bike-riding.
But business? Well, companies can if they like create incentives in their health insurance policies to reward people who stay slim, or they can decide subsidize gym memberships, or create running or walking paths if they have corporate campuses, or sell weight control products. But obesity is not the food industryâ€™s problem, and to say that it is undermines a sense of personal accountability that is just as important to society as is corporate accountability.
Iâ€™m even skeptical about the argument that food companies shouldnâ€™t market to children. In an ideal world, I suppose Iâ€™d agree. But the argument presumes that children can go to the supermarket and buy stuff that’s bad for them. Most can’t. Parents ought to have the strength to say no if they donâ€™t want to give their kids Fruit Loops or M&Mâ€™s after theyâ€™ve seen them on TV. What’s next? A ban on “junk food” ads to adults, too? And is Cherry Garcia junk food?
What’s often overlooked by the food police is that advertising to kids makes possible TV programming for kids. Just be aware that if we push companies to stop advertising to kids, someone else (mostly probably the viewers) will have to pay for the costs of programs on, say, Nickelodeon.
A second example: Labor rights in China. Mostly, I applaud the fact that Nike, Gap, Timberland, the toy industry, electronics companies and, yes, Wal-Mart monitor the working conditions in their supply chain to protect the human rights of workers in China (and elsewhere), because the Chinese government canâ€™t or wonâ€™t enforce its own labor laws. This is the upside of globalizationâ€”we are, in effect, exporting western labor standards to the global south.
But thereâ€™s a risk here, too, of letting the Chinese government off the hook. It is, after all, the government’s job to protect the labor rights of Chinese workers. Here again, lines are being blurred. The far better (if not yet practical) approach would be to put the heat on China and other countries in the global south to do what governments should and enforce labor laws. To the degree that corporate monitoring relieves the government of its role, that’s unhealthy. Smart companies understand this, and they are forming alliances to bring some rationality and efficiency to the hodge-podge system of monitoring in place now.
The point is, NGOs, CSR experts like Jane and Chris and companies all need to think carefully about where to draw the lines and where the buck should stop. My own inclination is to hold companies accountable for how their products are made (i.e., the labor rights example) and not to worry as much about how their products are used (the obesity example). It’s all rather complicated and messy. How does censoring a search engine or blog in China fit in, for example? But reflexively holding big business accountable for everything that’s wrong with the world isn’t a winning strategy, and could even be counterproductive.