Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
 

editorial

a cynic’s view of the Tories’ embrace of corporate social responsibility

February 2006

Imagine, for a moment, that the Conservative Party is a business – a listed company. It has not been performing well since its period of greatness a couple of decades ago, when it dominated the market, largely thanks to a brilliant leader.

A series of bad leadership choices and internal board wrangling have brought it to the point where almost everyone thinks it is ripe for break-up. But then, suddenly, a bright young spark emerges from the management ranks and becomes CEO. He promises to make changes. Big changes. The company’s market share rises rapidly and investors are delighted.

Casting around for new ideas, he recalls a ground-breaking speech of his legendary predecessor, who was a trained chemist, about global warming. One striking phrase – about how mankind may now have started an experiment with the planet itself – comes to mind. Surely something could be done with that? Following a series of internal strategy meetings, he declares the company’s embrace of corporate social responsibility, with specific reference to climate change.

Staff can take time off for good works. CSR features prominently on the index page of the company website. There’s even a pledge to make London headquarters carbon neutral. But policies are needed. The CEO hires the big names in the field – people with impeccable credentials like Sir Bob Geldof, but lesser stars too – to advise on the commercial implications for the business of global poverty, climate change and the world trade round. It will take them a couple of years to come up with something, so there is a pause.

From this point, things start to go awry. A series of embarrassing revelations come to light. Several senior executives, who really should know better, are found to be working for trade groups lobbying against a pending parliamentary bill that actually encourages companies to be more socially responsible. The resulting bad press leads to several of the advisers he had hired to develop policy resigning in disgust. Investors wonder aloud how much all this is costing.

The CEO’s reputation starts to sink. Having embraced CSR, he can’t simply drop it altogether. So it gets quietly shelved. Observers point out this is exactly what the two other organizations in this intensely competitive market have done. They developed policies years ago, but since then have done very little to put them into practice. OK, so one has appointed a CSR director, but he’s really just a figurehead – and anyway has loads of other responsibilities. So the CEO finds another issue. There are plenty of ways to make your mark.


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