Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


From navel-gazing to real action: it’s been a decade of great strides

May 2009

It is ten years to the month that Ethical Performance first saw the light of day. That’s not long ago in the general scheme of things, but it can be considered a lifetime in the world of corporate social responsibility. Much has changed in the decade since that first issue appeared, and much of it for the better.

Most importantly, there has been a greatly increased acceptance of CSR concepts by society at large. Because of this  – and because businesses know that unhappy workers,  dissatisfied customers, and general disapproval of company behaviour are unlikely to make for higher profits – there has been a marked shift over the past ten years to a recognition that shareholders are not the only stakeholders. This has led to the enormous growth of sustainability reporting, perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of the interest in CSR over the past decade. When EP began publishing, the appearance of a sustainability report was a news story in itself; now it is not.

The increased acceptance of CSR concepts, as well as the waning influence of detractors, has also led to a greater self-confidence among corporate responsibility practitioners. Gradually over the past ten years they have spent less time in navel-gazing debate over the economic or moral basis of CSR and more on actually doing something.

Parallel to this spread of CSR, there has been a growing interest in socially responsible investment. While the number of SRI funds has grown dramatically, the volume of investment is still relatively small. But the question is to what extent SRI concepts are entering the mainstream, both of analysis and of actual capital flows. On this front there is evidence to suggest that SRI techniques have begun to enter mainstream mindsets.

There are other areas, too numerous to mention, where progress has also been encouraging – though less striking. But we must not view the entire scene with rose-tinted spectacles, for there are spheres in which the advance has been far from sufficient. By and large, neither in the overall management of companies nor in the thinking of CSR professionals, are its concepts yet fully integrated. Because of that shortcoming, CSR practitioners must share the blame – albeit in a minor way –  for the current financial crisis. Ethical supply chain management is also a cause for concern, in part due to the complex problems of dealing with hundreds of suppliers and sub-contractors – and to operating in territories where there is poor governance.

These inadequacies aside, it has been a decade of enormous strides for corporate responsibility, which has not only ‘arrived’ but stayed. The groundwork has been done, and if the next ten years show a similar rate of progress then CSR will make an ever greater impact on business and society.

Peter Mason | Global | CSR

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