THE word ‘globalization’ defies a precise meaning primarily because it is so enmeshed with ideological considerations – both of the left and right. Enemies of globalization view it as a legitimizing of insatiable capitalist appetite preying on the world’s poor and hungry vulnerable population, while its proponents see it primarily as an agent of bringing prosperity to all (including the hitherto dispossessed) through the agency of the market. Quite apart from partisanship of this sort, it cannot be doubted that globalization has acquired an intellectual presence which is much larger than the politics of the left or the right. It is now a social phenomenon, and not just an ideological label for populist banter.
What makes globalization rise above the din of political wrangle is the fact that there has been a qualitative difference in the way people are beginning to relate to one another. This transition has occurred slowly, and even un-selfconsciously. Yet, what cannot be denied is that the emphasis has shifted, more noticeably in developing countries, from producerism to consumerism. Consumerism should not be understood here in a negative fashion, as it usually is in most popular renditions of the term. Instead, it should be seen as an expression of a demotic sentiment that arises among consumers who demand higher standards at all levels – from the commodity they buy, to the ways they are produced, right down to the producer’s commitment towards being a corporate citizen.
It is in this context that industries today consider, or should consider, the question of Corporate Social Responsibility. It is not enough to be philanthropic and not think in terms of consumers and other relevant stakeholders. It is not enough to be law abiding and leave matters at that, for a business rival round the corner can raise the stakes by introducing commodities and services, as well as conditions of production that are much higher than those required by law. Consumers today are alive to these changes and react to them in a fashion that tells on the bottom line of a firm. Therefore, the fact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has to be carefully devised keeping in mind the specifics of the organization and the kinds of demands that can be made upon it as a corporate citizen by all its relevant stakeholders.
At the same time, no company can afford to let its profits fall. In fact, if that were to happen then it would be letting down its stockholders and employees, who are two of its very important stakeholders. The question then is: how to devise a system of CSR that is related to business so that both can be sustained in synergy.
Let me begin with what may be called the ‘Friedman Dilemma’. In an influential essay, ‘Social Responsibility of Business’, first published in 1970 in the New York Times Magazine, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman said that corporate executives could either strive for profits or go haring about chasing social causes. The two were inimical to each other as ‘social responsibility’ was nothing less than unadulterated socialism. Of course, corporate philanthropy was allowed for, but only after profits were properly secured.
It is true that a firm must make profits in order to survive. It is also true that without profit there is no firm and no corporate social activity. But it is not true that corporate social responsibility is something that comes after profits are made and money deposited with the stockholders. Nor is it true that corporate social responsibility is only for the big players, and smaller entrepreneurs have to first make the money.
For Milton Friedman, corporate philanthropy is all right, but anything resembling corporate social responsibility is letting the shareholders down. But CSR is not the same as philanthropy,1 though most are not clear about the difference. There is no doubt that in a country like India corporate philanthropy has a significant place, but CSR has a different charter. CSR, at its best, is about the corporate sector reaching out from within the company to the society outside in order to benefit both business and the social and physical environment in which it functions. CSR thus synergises social and business interests, and it is this coupling that makes it different from philanthropy, as we know it to be.
The rub, however, lies in making it sustainable. CSR has attained a kind of unreal and ethereal reputation largely because it is confused with projects that are not driven by business interests but by whims and fancies of the top executives. CSR is not about digging wells and setting up schools and feeding babies. All too often CEOs are smitten by remorse and guilt and want to do something ‘relevant’ in the world at large and they call that CSR. In fact, such activities have little to do with CSR, and if anything they resemble corporate philanthropy. Here again, in most cases, the commitment is not long lasting as it is primarily driven by the CEO’s personal preferences about which causes to support.
In order to make CSR sustainable it is necessary to develop an ethical perspective in corporate matters. Cliché like though this may sound, business ethics is about stakeholders, yes every one of them, from the environment to the stockholder. If looked at closely this clearly implies that when we are talking Business Ethics we are talking about linking our concern with those of others. The ‘other’ is a very important element in ethics and it is important to appreciate that if we are to separate ethics from morals.
Morals can be privatized and there is no intrinsic need for a person to convert others to a certain point of view. In fact, it is possible to hold on to a moral position alone in the face of stiff opposition from everybody else. It often gives the moralist a sense of secondary satisfaction that he or she is the sole moral being in a crowd of immoral people. When we come to ethics, however, it is impossible to be ethical alone. Ethics involves others as a basic and fundamental requirement; it is working with other people, about transparency of norms, universality, and demonstrability.
As other people are essential to drive ethics of whichever kind, it has to be demonstrable in its effects in a clear and limpid fashion.
As morality is often confused with ethics it is not surprising that the term ‘business ethics’ should appear so distant and unattainable to many. In reality, business ethics begins by knowing the company one works for, understanding the diverse interests of its various stakeholders, and then charting out programmes that satisfy them and indeed, raises their standards of expectation. In other words, ethics always begins at home.
Keeping this in mind, one can now take the next step and argue that corporate social responsibility is best put in practice when it helps meet the expectations of a firm’s stakeholders. This implies that CSR must have a business perspective without being obsessed by profits. If one keeps ethics as top priority the bottom line will swell, and swell in a sustainable way. It is true that many got away by being sheer robber barons in the way they do business, but let it be known that the life of such organizations is very short, and sometimes even the biggest, like Enron, can have a mighty fall.
To make CSR sustainable it is necessary to keep the business interest of the company in mind. If this is not done then CSR programmes will run so long as the top executive is personally involved in them and wither away when something more gripping comes around and grabs the leader’s attention. CSR cannot be left to personal whims and fancies, nor should it be seen as something that is done as an after thought once profits have been made. CSR is an aspect of everyday business and executives would do well to see it that way.
All too often one is told that CSR is about obeying the law. This is not correct. Obeying the law is a necessary but not sufficient condition for practising CSR. Jamsetji Tata made that clear decades ago when he said that if after adherence to the law one does not feel quite correct, then it is necessary to raise our standards even higher. CSR is an evolving concern and quite in keeping with the way in which business is transforming itself on account of a number of factors.
Customers are now much more conscious of standards, stakeholders are aware of their interests, and more than anything else, the co-workers of a company are viewed quite differently from the way they were perceived till a few decades ago. No longer is the boss made in the mould of the tycoon who towered over everyone else with his authority and charisma. Now the top executive is like the captain of a team who is out there to get the best performance possible by energizing the potentialities in each of the players. In this process the boss too strives to be that much better, that much more effective, every day.
This change in attitude towards co-workers and employees is because the levels of technology are now so advanced that no single person, or department, can corner it and hope to control it for the company as a whole. With the social spread of technology at every level of expertise there has to be a greater respect down the line if the firm is to function as a cohesive unit. Second, in keeping with the changes in technology there has been a general elevation of expectations regarding standards on the part of consumers of goods and services. Both of these features can be tracked down to the overall development of modernization where individual merit and needs are recognized as intrinsically worthy of recognition.
These tectonic changes in modern societies have flattened status considerations that were so much a part of the pre-modern era. The ‘other’ now begins to figure in the way one individuates oneself. This has become a structural condition of modern societies and it has nothing to do with altruism or generosity. While this trait is developed quite prominently in most western societies, it is also making headway in countries like India, though there is still a long distance to travel. But that is the general direction and it is, therefore, advisable to recognize it and put our corporate practices in line with it. This is why it is imperative now to think in terms of business ethics where considerations of the ‘other’ are crucial for any entrepreneurial venture that hopes to last the distance over the long haul.
Corporate social responsibility must also be in tune with these imperatives and that is why all initiatives on this score must be stakeholder oriented and driven by business interests if they are to be sustainable. Accordingly I propose three models of CSR: (i) competency driven; (ii) community driven; and (iii) consumer driven. These three models are not hermetically sealed units as there are frequent overlaps between them. Nevertheless, it can be maintained that the area of emphasis is different for each one of them and that is why it is important to separate them analytically.
In the competency driven model of CSR, the company reaches out to the society by depending on its core competencies. In doing so, it helps create potential stakeholders, and also adds to evolving higher efficiency standards. In such instances of CSR, the company delves deep into the firm’s core competencies in its corporate outreach. In doing so it finds new areas where its competencies can be manifested and fresh circumstances that challenge its established routine. Put them together and they add up to higher performance levels within the organization as well, providing one is willing to learn.
Examples of such competency driven CSR are many. When Lipton Company in Etah decided to help set up veterinary hospitals in the region from where it got its milk supplies, it helped the dairy farmers within its area of operation, as well as itself. There was a greater awareness of how best to increase milk supplies and of the best ways of improving the quality of milch cattle. Excel, an agro-based enterprise took upon itself to recycle garbage in Mumbai and thereby added a new dimension to its core competency besides helping clean the city. Tata Hotels have used their knowledge in food, beverage and room management to help poor people cook nutritious food at lower costs and run rehabilitation homes. Several IT companies have set up computer literacy programmes. Multinational drug companies, like Pfizer, are interested in supporting hospices that challenge their existing competency in drug manufacture.
In community driven CSR, organizations invest in social welfare but again with a business interest. For example, TELCO and Tata Chemicals have created recreational facilities around artificial lakes that are filled with water purified from industrial effluents. By committing themselves to enlarging public facilities of this sort, several Tata companies are committed to subscribing to a sustainable form of CSR. IKEA, the Swedish home furnishing multinational, has set up bridge schools in carpet belt areas in east Uttar Pradesh as it sources a lot of material from there. IKEA is committed to keeping units it has business relations with free of child labour. By establishing such schools it tries to create incentives for parents to keep their children away from the job market.
At the same time this pressures its suppliers to raises their performance standards. Some IKEA suppliers have been so enthused by this project that they too have set up schools, signalling thereby to their workers a commitment to maintaining high standards of production. Such instances need not just be limited to private companies. Sugar cooperatives in Kolhapur, Maharashtra that have helped construct dams to improve irrigation for farmers supplying cane to them, have in the process become more aware of production processes and technologies. Some cooperatives have also set up schools and technical institutions where the children of small shareholders can be trained and later absorbed in the organization’s work force.
It is now widely recognized that consumer pressure has made a great difference in sensitizing companies to the needs of stakeholders. But what must be acknowledged in addition is that CSR can also help in raising consumer standards and expectations. In this process not only is the consumer benefited, but the company too can hike up the competition in its own market sector. For example, if a cloth producing company insists that it will purchase cotton only when there is no child labour expended in fertilizing cotton seeds, or when the cotton is produced in an environmentally friendly fashion with the help of what is called ‘integrated pest management’, it immediately puts other companies that are not thinking along these lines under tremendous pressure. It has both an edge over them and the satisfaction of adding to knowledge.
Likewise, a firm can also insist that it will not buy parts from a producer that does not meet with the highest standards of compliance regarding working conditions, wages and benefits, and pollution standards. By being steadfast in this matter it can also raise the expectations of its consumers who will balk at the suggestion that some of what they consume has been produced under unacceptable conditions. Or, an enterprise may decide to purchase from cooperatives set up by marginal communities, or contract with service providers that come from backward sectors of the society. This also adds to the company’s profile with its consumers, but again in a manner that affects the working of the organization in an intrinsic fashion.
These are some of the ways by which a company can have a sustainable CSR, and not be dependent on the mercurial dispositions of CEOs who themselves have ephemeral biographies within an organization. The mantra to sustainable CSR quite clearly is to relate it to principles of business ethics which forces one to reach out in terms of business interests within. Sustainable CSR is truly stakeholder oriented, and not just indiscriminate philanthropy.
1. Indeed, 63% of the capital of Tata Sons Ltd. is held by trusts for philanthropic purposes, and it is popular knowledge how effectively the funds of this trust are employed for a variety of purposes, from health to education to building infrastructural facilities