Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
 

analysis

corporate responsibility under president Bush

March 2001

President George W. Bush has brought a reputation for conservatism with him to the White House. This has raised fears that the momentum behind corporate social responsibility in the US will be slowed or even reversed.

Yet some observers take a quite different view. They believe that the new incumbent will have a broadly neutral effect on the corporate social responsibility agenda – and in some quarters, there is a feeling that less enthusiasm in the White House will actually be a positive influence.

It is still very early days for the new presidency. On certain key issues, such as social investment and sweatshop labour, the new Administration as yet has no specific agenda beyond a non-interventionist philosophy.

However, David Vidal, director of research at the Conference Board, points out that while there is little prospect of positive action on many CSR issues by the new president, this is not the same as predicting a negative impact.

‘Business is going to have to develop these things on its own’, he said, ‘but that is exactly what happened with philanthropy in the 1970s and 1980s.’

This view is echoed by Eileen Kaufman, director of Social Accountability International, which runs the SA8000 ethical trading standard.

‘CSR is now firmly entrenched in the corporate community’, she said. ‘But that is not because of government impetus and the future won’t depend on the intent of the Administration.’

Some observers even argue that less enthusiasm in the White House will actually be a positive influence. Brad Googins, director of the Boston College Center for Corporate Community Relations, claimed: ‘Bush is aiming to out-Reagan Reagan on deregulation. But ironically that could be a great boost for the development of CSR as it puts more onus on companies and they will face greater expectations to behave better.’

Socially responsible investment is another area in which the market, and not policy, is driving growth.

‘This industry developed as a reaction to the lack of government policies on issues we think are important’, explained Steve Schueth, a board member of the Social Investment Forum.

To date, the new Administration has introduced two specific policies which directly relate to CSR. First, the president has formed a White House office for religious initiatives. Federal departments will be expected to hand over government money and responsibilities to faith-based community groups.

This could boost community development initiatives in some places, but could make it more difficult where churches have been less involved, and complicate corporate community involvement.

Second, the president’s planned tax cuts include one measure which has alarmed many in the philanthropic movement – the planned abolition of estate tax, levied on wealth at death. Many prominent charitable donors and recipients fear that its abolition would seriously restrict charitable giving.

There is one area in particular where there are widespread concerns about Republican policies: the environment. The green jury has pretty well returned a ‘guilty’ verdict already.

Environmentalists fear the worst for the Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska. Vice president Dick Cheney has confirmed that drilling will be sanctioned in part of the wilderness. However, the issue goes beyond party lines. Opposition for the project has come from the urban east and west coasts of the US as well as from conservation groups.

Certain Bush appointees also raise green hackles. As secretary of the interior, Gale Norton is in charge of huge tracts of land, including the national parks. Friends of the Earth fears she will roll back measures to protect endangered species, preserve natural heritage and relax controls on mining and oil exploration.

The pressure group has also opposed the appointments of Spencer Abraham as energy secretary and John Ashcroft as attorney general, arguing that both men have anti-environmental records.

The debate about the Arctic wildlife refuge is an example of the growing awareness that environmental issues are closely linked to social concerns.

David Wheeler, director of the business sustainability programme at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto said: ‘At a recent conference in Texas, a number of US corporations dealing with the sustainability challenge made it very clear that they saw the social agenda as integral to their sustainability efforts.

‘These corporations represented oil, automotive and high tech companies. This represents a major shift on where they would have been even two years ago,’ Wheeler said.

While all parties stress that it is still early days, there is broad optimism that the Bush agenda will do no harm to the further development of CSR.




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