Source - the Economist magazine, May 26, 2005
The Biggest Contract:
By building social issues into strategy, big business can recast the debate about its role,
argues Ian Davis
May 26th 2005 | from the print edition
Ian Davis is worldwide managing director of McKinsey & Company, an international consulting
THE great, long-running debate about business's role in society is currently caught between two
contrasting, and tired, ideological positions.
On one side of the current debate are those who argue that (to borrow Milton Friedman's phrase)
the “business of business is business”. This belief is most established in Anglo-Saxon
economies. On this view, social issues are peripheral to the challenges of corporate management.
The sole legitimate purpose of business is to create shareholder value.
On the other side are the proponents of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR), a rapidly
growing, rather fuzzy movement encompassing both companies which claim already to practise
CSR and sceptical campaign groups arguing they need to go further in mitigating their social
impacts. As other regions of the world—parts of continental and central Europe, for example—
move towards the Anglo-Saxon shareholder-value model, debate between these sides has
increasingly taken on global significance.
That is a pity. Both perspectives obscure in different ways the significance of social issues to
business success. They also caricature unhelpfully the contribution of business to social welfare.
It is time for CEOs of big companies to recast this debate and recapture the intellectual and
moral high ground from their critics.
Large companies need to build social issues into strategy in a way which reflects their actual
business importance. They need to articulate business's social contribution and define its ultimate
purpose in a way that has more subtlety than “the business of business is business” worldview
and is less defensive than most current CSR approaches. It can help to view the relationship
between big business and society in this respect as an implicit “social contract”: Rousseau
adapted for the corporate world, you might say. This contract has obligations, opportunities and
mutual advantage for both sides.
To explain the basis for such an approach, however, it may help first to pinpoint the limitations
with the two current ideological poles. Start with the “business of business is business”. The
issue here is not primarily legal. In many countries, such as Germany, the legal obligation
anyway is to stakeholders, and even in America the legal primacy of shareholders is open to very
The problem with “the business of business” mindset is rather that it can blind management to
two important realities. The first is that social issues are not so much tangential to the business of
business as fundamental to it. From a defensive point of view, companies that ignore public
sentiment make themselves vulnerable to attack. But social pressures can also operate as early
indicators of factors core to corporate profitability: for example, the regulations and publicpolicy environment in which companies must operate; the appetite of consumers for certain
goods above others; and the motivation (and willingness to be hired in the first place) of
Companies that treat social issues as either irritating distractions or simply unjustified vehicles
for attack on business are turning a blind eye to impending forces that have the potential
fundamentally to alter their strategic future. Although the effect of social pressure on these forces
may not be immediate, this is not a reason for companies to delay preparing for or tackling them.
Even from a strict shareholder-value perspective, most stockmarket value—typically over 80%
in American and western European public markets—depends on expectations of companies'
cashflow beyond the next three years.
Examples abound of the long-term business impact of social issues. These are growing fast. In
the pharmaceuticals sector, a storm of social pressures over the last decade—stemming from
issues such as public perceptions of excessive prices charged for HIV drugs in developing
countries, for example—are now translating into a general (and sometimes seemingly
indiscriminate) toughening in the regulatory environment. In the food and restaurant sector,
meanwhile, the long-escalating debate about obesity is now resulting in calls for further controls
on the marketing of unhealthy foods. In the case of big financial institutions, concerns over
conflicts of interest and mis-selling of products have recently led to changes in core business
practices and industry structure. For some big retailers, public and planning resistance to new
stores is constraining growth opportunities. And all this is to say nothing of how social and
political pressures have reshaped and redefined the tobacco industry, say, or the oil and mining
industries over the decades.
In all such cases, billions of dollars of shareholder value have been put at stake as the result of
social issues that ultimately feed into fundamental drivers of corporate performance. In many
instances, a “business of business is business” outlook has blinded companies to outcomes (or
shifts in their implicit “social contract”) which often could have been anticipated.
Just as important, these outcomes have posed not just risks to companies, but also have generated
value-creation opportunities. In the case of the pharmaceuticals sector, for example, in the
growing market for generic (ie, non-patent-protected) drugs; in the case of fast-food restaurants,
in providing healthier meals; and in the case of the energy industry, in meeting fast-growing
demand (as well as regulatory pressure) for cleaner fuels such as natural gas. Social pressures
often indicate the existence of unmet social needs or consumer preferences. Businesses can gain
advantage by spotting and supplying these before their competitors.
Paradoxically, the language of shareholder value may hinder companies from maximising
shareholder value in this respect. Practised as an unthinking mantra, it can lead managers to
focus excessively on improving the short-term performance of their business, neglecting
important longer-term opportunities and issues. The latter would include not just societal
pressures, but also the trust of customers, investment in innovation and other growth prospects.
The second point that the “business of business is business” outlook obscures for many
companies is related to the first: the need to address questions around their ethics and legitimacy.
For reasons of integrity and enlightened self-interest, big firms need to tackle such issues, in both
words and actions.
It is neither sufficient nor wise to say that it is up to governments to set laws, and for companies
simply to operate within these rules. Nor is it enough, even if it is often valid, to point out that
many criticisms of businesses are unmerited, or that those throwing the mud ought also to
examine their own practices and social responsibility. Irrespective of whether the criticisms are
valid or not, their cumulative effect can shape the strategic context for companies. It is
imperative for business to seek to lead rather than react to these debates.
Moreover, in some parts of the world, particularly in some poor developing countries, the rule of
law as well as provision of basic public services is notable by its absence. This can render the
“business of business is business” positively unhelpful as a guide for corporate action. If
companies operating in such environments focus too narrowly on ill-defined local laws or shy
from broad debates about their alleged behaviour, they are likely to face mounting criticism over
their activities, and face a greater risk of becoming embroiled in local political tensions.
Is CSR the answer? If only it were. This is not to criticise the many laudable CSR initiatives by
individual companies, nor to dispute the obvious need for businesses (as for any other social
entity) to be responsible. It is rather to examine the broad prescriptions set for companies by
groups and activists involved in CSR. These commonly include “stakeholder dialogue”, “social
and environmental reports” and corporate policies on ethical issues. This approach is too limited,
too defensive and too disconnected from corporate strategy.
The defensive posture of CSR springs from its genesis
The defensive posture of CSR springs from its genesis. Its popularity as a set of tactics among
companies was driven in large part by a series of anti-corporate campaigns in the late 1990s.
These were given impetus in turn by the anti-globalisation protests around the same time. Since
then companies have been drawn to CSR, attracted by nice-sounding, if vague notions such as
the “triple bottom line” (the idea that companies can simultaneously serve social and
environmental goals as well as profits). They have seen it as a means to avoid NGO and
reputational flak, and to mitigate the rougher edges and consequences of capitalism.
This defensiveness starts the argument on the wrong foot, certainly as far as business leaders
should be concerned. Big business provides huge and critical contributions to modern society.
These are insufficiently articulated, acknowledged or understood. Among these are productivity
gains, innovation and research, employment, large-scale investments, human-capital
development and organisation. All of these are, and will be, essential for future national and
global economic welfare. Big business also provides a vehicle for investment that is likely to be
central to the provision of pensions in the ageing OECD. In poorer developing countries,
meanwhile, the entry of multinational companies (through foreign direct investment) has often
contributed critical capital, technology, skills and other poverty-reducing economic spillovers. It
is no coincidence that developing countries place such emphasis on attracting big businesses and
the investment it can bring to their economies.
Such a thing as society?
CSR is limited as an agenda for corporate action because it fails to capture the potential
importance of social issues for corporate strategy. Admittedly companies undertaking
“stakeholder dialogue” with NGOs will be more aware in advance of potential issues. But
tracking NGO opinion is only a part of understanding the range of social pressures which
ultimately can affect core business drivers such as regulations, consumption patterns and the like.
An obvious next step for companies, having understood the possible evolution of these broad
social pressures, is to map long-term options and responses to them. This process clearly needs
to be rooted in strategic development. Yet typical CSR initiatives—a new ethical policy here, for
example, or a glossy sustainability report there—are often tangential to this. It is perfectly
possible for a firm to follow many of the prescriptions of CSR and still to be caught short by
seismic shifts in its socially-driven business environment.
One of the compounding problems is that many companies have chosen to root their CSR
functions too narrowly within their public- or corporate-affairs departments. Though playing an
important tactical role, such departments are often geared towards rebutting criticism, and tend to
operate at a distance from strategic decision-making within the company.
In the limitations of both CSR and of the “business of business is business” thinking lie the
outlines of a new approach for business (as relevant for Chinese, Indian and German companies
as for American and British businesses). Three main strands stand out.
The first is a helpfully simple prescription. Businesses need to introduce explicit processes to
make sure that social issues and emerging social forces are discussed at the highest levels as part
of overall strategic planning. This means executive managers must educate and engage their
boards of directors. It also means they need to develop broad metrics or summaries that usefully
describe the relevant issues, in much the same way that most firms analyse customer trends
today. The risk that stakeholders—including governments, consumer groups, lawyers and the
media—will mobilise around particular issues can be roughly estimated based on the known
agendas and interests of these groups. For example, that the obesity debate would rebound before
long on the food companies was partly predictable from the growing spending by governments
on obesity-related health problems, inevitable media focus on the issue, plus the interest of some
lawyers in finding fresh corporate targets for litigation. By the time business seriously engaged
with the issue, however, it was in a defensive posture, struggling to catch up with the public
debate. In future, companies need to be much better at understanding and anticipating such
Big, not so easy
The second and third strands both relate to the idea that there is an implicit contract between big
business and society, or indeed between whole economic sectors and society—the contract that is
the subject of this article. Detractors have often successfully portrayed the contract as a one-way
bargain that benefits business at society's expense. Reality is much more complex. The activities
undertaken by business have clearly brought social benefits as well as costs. Similarly, however,
there are two sides to a contract—and business must acknowledge that in return for the ability to
function it is subject to rules and constraints. At times the contract can come under obvious
strain. The recent backlash against big business in America can be seen as society seeking to
shift the terms of the contract, based on popular perceptions that business has abused its role.
Similarly in Germany at present, business is struggling to defend itself against charges that its
contract with society is fundamentally unbalanced.
The second strand requires companies not just to understand their individual “contracts”, but
actively to manage them. To do this they can choose from a range of potential tactics such as:
more transparent reporting; shifts in R&D or asset reorganisation to capture expected future
opportunities or to shed perceived liabilities; changes in regulatory approach; and, at an industry
level, development and deployment of voluntary standards of behaviour.
Some companies and sectors are already experimenting with such approaches—witness General
Electric's recent announcement of a doubling of its research spending on environmentallyfriendlier technologies. Nonetheless, there is scope for much more activity, provided it is aligned
with corporate strategic goals. Reshaping conduct on an industry-wide and increasingly global
basis may be particularly important given that the perceived misdeeds of one company can
rebound on its sector as a whole.
An important point is that companies will have quite different tactical responses depending on
their circumstances, so off-the-shelf, or simply nice-sounding, solutions may not always be
appropriate. Transparency offers a good example. It is easy, but wrong, to say that there can
never be enough of it. What might be good for a pharmaceutical firm trying to restore consumers'
trust could be damaging for a hedge-fund manager. And a voluntary code of practice for a
retailer naturally would read very differently from that of a copper-mining company.
This leads me to the third strand of a new approach for business leaders. They need to shape the
debates on social issues much more consciously. This means establishing ever higher standards
of integrity and transparency within their own companies. It also means becoming much more
actively involved in external debates and in the media on social issues that shape their business
A starting point may be for CEOs to articulate publicly the purpose of business in less dry terms
than shareholder value. Shareholder value should continue to be seen as the critical measure of
business success. However, it may be more accurate, more motivating—and indeed more
beneficial to shareholder value over the long term—to describe business's ultimate purpose as the
efficient provision of goods and services that society wants.
This is a hugely valuable, even noble, purpose. It is the fundamental basis of the contract
between business and society, and forms the basis of most people's real interactions with
business. CEOs could point out that profits should not be seen as an end in themselves, but rather
as a signal from society that their company is succeeding in its mission of providing something
people want—and doing it in a way that uses resources efficiently relative to other possible uses.
From this perspective, shareholder-value creation or profits are the measure, and the reward, of
success in delivering to society the more fundamental business purpose. The measures and
rewards reflect the predominant values of the relevant society.
By moving away from a rigid linguistic focus on shareholder value, big business can also make
clear to a broad audience that it understands the trade-offs that are inherent in its social contract.
The debate between business and society is essentially one over the management of, and
agreement over, those trade-offs.
What might this mean specifically? There is no shortage of big social issues today that directly
affect many big businesses and that require new debate. These include: ensuring aid and trade
regimes successfully promote the development of Africa and other poor regions (the economic
lift-off of such regions would present a major potential boon to global markets as well as
international security); promoting a more sophisticated and sensitive approach from both
companies and governments to balancing the societal risks and rewards from new technologies;
spearheading dialogue on the health-care and pension challenges in many developed countries;
and supporting efforts to resolve regional conflicts.
Obviously the relevant issue needs to be matched to the specific business. Some companies and
business organisations have taken strong public stances on these and similar issues. But in
general high-level, concerted corporate activism is more notable by its absence.
Business leaders should not fear their greater advocacy of the contract between business and
society. Public receptiveness to active business leadership on issues such as these may be a lot
better than some might be inclined to think. Despite the poor image and bad press of big business
in recent times, polls suggest that people retain a belief in the ability of business to provide a
positive contribution to society.
More than two centuries ago, Rousseau's social contract helped to seed the idea among political
leaders that they must serve the public good, lest their own legitimacy be threatened. The CEOs
of today's big corporations should take the opportunity to restate and reinforce their own social
contracts in order to help secure, for the long term, the invested billions of their shareholders.
Spirituality and Work
Corporate Social Responsibility
Instructor: David Sable
copyright © 2019
Corporate Social Responsibility
(CSR) and triple bottom line reporting.
➢ Explore some examples of CSR.
➢ Explore the relationship of CSR to
spirituality in the workplace.
copyright © 2019
Corporate Social Responsibility
Definition: Corporate Social Responsibility
(CSR) occurs when organizations take
responsibility for the impact of their activities on
customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders,
communities and other stakeholders, as well as
the environment. CSR exten ...
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