So, there’s a rip-roaring debate going on about corporate responsibility and the nature and future of capitalism.
New York’s Occupy Wall Street campaign continues, inspiring similar protests in towns and cities up and down the US, in Europe and across the world. And over here in the UK, we have protesters ready for the long haul outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Not surprising, you might think, given we’re still struggling to recover from the 2009 recession and teetering on the brink of what could be a much worse financial crisis spreading from the eurozone.
The conditions are good for such a debate. There is a generalised anger about bankers, city traders and overpaid executives on either side of the Atlantic. But, given that (in Britain, at least) we are currently enduring the greatest squeeze on living standards since World War II, I would have thought the debate would have encroached more on mainstream consciousness than it has managed so far.
The 99 per cent
Small though it is, the Wall Street protesters have generated a considerable amount of attention with their call for a better life for the ‘99%’, and have inspired and reached out to similar protests and figures from around the world – there’s a running commentary on their website, at occupywallst.org. Here in the UK, the St Paul’s protest has a robust agenda with clear and concise positions.
The occupylsx.org website includes an ‘initial statement’ which starts by saying: “The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives.” Point 3 says: “We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.” There are nine points in all, which go on to cover issues of global equality and democracy.
Large parts of the statement will chime with the prevailing state of public anger and, while much of this treads all over the territory of corporate responsibility, what it could all add up to in terms of a regulatory or business response is not at all clear.
Those in power have enough on their plate with the eurozone debt crisis. So, in the UK, it has been the opposition leader, Labour’s Ed Miliband, that has tentatively tried to define the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ business, develop the concepts of ‘predator’ and ‘producer’ capitalism, and has suggested the former should be taxed to support the latter.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in September, he said: “Predatory behaviour is when a business does something which is in its own short-term interests but does significant damage to the long-term health of the economy.” He called for a culture change within business that dispenses with the belief that “as long as people maximise their short-term interest, everything will be okay in business and elsewhere”.
This territory is just packed with potential pitfalls and I can’t see many in business feeling that Miliband’s comments have been terribly helpful. Perhaps this is another battleground where the corporate social responsibility (CSR) profession will prove its worth.
• Originally published in Ethical Performance in November 2011