The State of CSR in the US: A UK Perspective

San Francisco, Calif.: Mission District, Abandoned Movie House 5/19/10

          Over at Ethical Corporation, its founder and publisher, old friend Toby Webb, takes a judicious look at the state of corporate social responsibility in the US.

           Toby reflects on the Responsible Business Summit EC ran in New York June 1 and 2.

 Our agenda for the event had reflected that which 25 executives and general trends had told us: Green, or greener, is king in the US right now, alongside standard community work.

 This is no doubt for myriad reasons: The US historically, aside from community and philanthropy work (not to be underestimated of course) has focused less than Europe on issues such as human rights, the social contract and general license to operate. This has deep cultural and legal roots, but of course also because whilst in Europe business is viewed with suspicion, there to be tolerated as a means to an end[,] in the US business is to be celebrated, almost to the point of being an end in itself.

           To me it seems no mystery why, in the US, among corporations green is king at the same time they continue their traditional community activities.  Green has become civic.  Stripped of its political and social ethos, it is little more than an ‘adopt a highway’ campaign.

          In addition, political green policies have proven their worth to managers looking to pare today’s costs and anticipate future constraints.  They appeal, as Toby notes, to the American school of bean-counting management.

           Snark aside, this greening isn’t lipstick on a pig.  It marks a significant generational change in philosophy, as I said here.

           But to me, it has been too little at too great a cost.  Not even corporate America’s greatest defender could argue that the condition of America’s workers, for instance, has improved over the generation and a half of evolving greening.

           The different views of business baffle most Europeans – and many Americans.  I would put it more strongly than Toby: in the US, business is an end in itself.  If it weren’t, Toby’s phrase ‘the social contract and general license to operate’ would have some resonance here.

           Toby goes on to note:

There’s a slightly stunned political environment and a lack of street and citizen protest

 The polarization of politics in the US has stifled political debate around sustainable business innovation. That seems clear to me from my conversations with many folks in New York and Boston in the last couple of weeks. There simply isn’t the level of public protest we see in Europe beyond very small groups, to push politicians to take issues seriously. Since the BP disaster public pressure has died down to a large degree. Obama’s record on the topic of CR encouragement has been patchy at best. The 2010 Frank Dodd act has driven some interest in supply chains, anti-corruption enforcement actions are up, and the Californian supply chain slavery disclosure law may have some impact, but clearly CR has not been much on the government agenda and probably won’t be until 2013 when elections are over.

 I fear Toby understates the political passivity and is too optimistic in his hope for 2013.

           Americans have always had little appetite for the mass protests and general strikes that have marked European politics since the 1840s.  The past decade’s aggressive stifling of dissent in the guise of anti-terror campaigns and ‘national security’ has reduced that appetite still further.  I don’t see that changing in 2013 regardless of the election’s outcome.

           Take a moment to readToby’s blog in full.  Ethical Corporation continues to be must reading for anyone seriously interested in corporate social responsiblity.