Corporations hiding behind a mask of responsibility, says report

Posted: 19 January 2004

The image of companies working hard to make the world a better place is too often just that - a carefully manufactured image - says Behind the mask: the real face of corporate social government, a report timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum of business leaders, meeting in Davos later this month (January 2004).

The report, by Christian Aid, targets the misuse of 'corporate social responsibility' - or CSR - which is now seen as a vital tool in promoting and improving the public image of some of the world's largest companies and corporations.

Protesting against Coca Cola, Kerala, IndiaLiz Stuart/Christian Aid
Protesting against Coca Cola, Kerala, IndiaLiz Stuart/Christian Aid
People from communities living around Coca Cola's bottling plant in Kerala, India, protesting about the company's use of their ground water© Liz Stuart/Christian Aid

But, according to the case studies in this report - featuring Shell, British American Tobacco and Coca Cola - the rhetoric can also mask corporate activity that makes things worse for the communities in which they work."Some of those shouting the loudest about their corporate virtues are also among those inflicting continuing damage on communities where they work - particularly poor communities" says Andrew Pendleton, senior policy officer at Christian Aid and author of the report. "Legally binding regulation is now needed to lessen the devastating impact that companies can have in an ever-more globalised world."

The report seeks to demonstrate how over the past decade companies have used an image of social responsibility to oppose regulation and convince governments in rich countries that business can put its own house in order. The report concludes that the voluntary approach to improving corporate behaviour is wholly inadequate and that international legally binding standards are now needed.

Oil spills

"Shell in Nigeria claims that it has turned over a new leaf there and strives to e 'good neighbour '. Yet it still fails to quickly clean up oil spills that ruin villages and runs 'community development ' projects that are frequently ineffective and which sometimes even widen the divide in communities living around the oilfields," says Christian Aid.

"British American Tobacco stresses the importance of upholding high standards of health and safety among those working for them and claims to provide local farmers with the necessary training and protective clothing. But contract farmers in Kenya and Brazil claim this does not happen and report chronic ill heath related to tobacco cultivation.

"Coca-Cola emphasises ' using natural resources responsibly ' .Yet a wholly owned subsidiary in India is accused of depleting village wells in an area where water is notoriously scarce and has been told by an Indian court to stop drawing ground water."

"Governments too must now adopt an international set of standards for the behaviour of companies. Rich countries like Britain have regulations that bind companies to good ethical practice at home. So why should companies not be tied to similar standards when they are working in poor countries? " asks Pendleton. "Instead of talking about more voluntary CSR in Davos, governments including Britain's should be discussing how new laws can raise standards of corporate behaviour."

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Christian Aid