EDITORIAL: CSR is for all, not just do-gooders

News that British American Tobacco struggled to find willing stakeholders to engage with its first tentative steps in the direction of corporate social responsibility are worrying for more businesses than those in sectors widely considered morally problematic.

As the first tobacco firm to produce a social report, this move was always going to be controversial. Given the nature of BAT's business, it came as little surprise that the lobbying group Action on Smoking and Health - which was asked to take part in a dialogue process with the tobacco giant - moved to dismiss it as little more than a 'public relations exercise ... a worthless, damaging initiative'.

There is a certain superficial appeal to the argument that any assessment of the impact on society for a company such as BAT - or firms in sectors such as arms manufacturing or alcohol production and distribution - ought to start with the clear health implications of corporate success in terms of either cancer, liver disease or war.

There is, though, a contrary and compelling view that the most effective thing a corporation can do in the pursuit of the public good is to focus its energies on delivering shareholder value. In an age of mass private pension provision and investment trust take-up, countless millions of people depend on equity prices to secure their future.

But the argument that a company that, inadvertently or otherwise, kills a proportion of its customers each year has no right to engage in CSR programmes is bogus. The case for businesses to take account of their impact on audiences other than just their shareholders was won years ago - the history of CSR during the past five years has been of a mass corporate epiphany slowly dawning on the serried ranks of City suits.

If it is considered important to any business that their social responsibilities be taken seriously - that staff should take part in green initiatives, be treated fairly and engage with the community in which they are based - then it is surely important for every business to do so.

If CSR is to succeed as a device to create an equable and sustainable future for the business world, that has to include those types of businesses of which the chattering classes are normally snootily dismissive.

Tobacco companies may be taking part in a business many disapprove of but, in their regular operations, they are not doing anything illegal.

Attempting to create a two-way dialogue with stakeholders who are affected by the business's operations is considered de rigeur for most corporations.

To discriminate against select types of companies on moral grounds goes against the ethos of the market.

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