In Favour of a Democratic CSR Strategy
By Leah Mersky | November 12th, 2018
Companies transform the societies and ecosystems in which they take-up space. Corporate Social Responsibility invites companies to be responsible towards society, yet this invitation is loose and the process ungoverned. The words “social” and “responsibility” become open to interpretation. If “social” refers to a society, one wonders, which society is it? If alternative (including Indigenous and minority) societies are to be given equal value as the status quo, the collective values of “society” become far more nuanced, and at times conflicting. To that end, “responsible” is equally vague; responsible to who or what?
It is in this open field that CSR strategies weigh negative impact with positive outcome in a company’s actions and operations, and determine to which society, and which value system, the company will hold itself responsible to. The CSR strategy is incredibly important, as it will determine which facet of society, and subsequently which value systems, are given due attention – and which ones are ignored.
I believe the clearest thread that runs through Canadian “society” is democracy. I also think that CSR strategies operating in democratic societies should reflect democratic values, as this is the most socially responsible thing to do within that society. Further, a democratic approach to CSR is also the most ethical, because liberty, equality and justice are the core democratic values. For me, a democratic CSR strategy would include four key themes: power, education interests and information and transparency.
A democratic CSR strategy would investigate and assess the power dynamics between the company and the many variables (individuals, stakeholders, land) that are affected by it. The policy should mediate unethical power dynamics, by empowering the variables that have lesser power or lesser control over decision-making that affects them. This levelling process contributes to a more democratic fate of the place or individuals in question and is more socially responsible.
To guide this process, attention should be made to subjects that have historically been awarded less power. These span across race, class, gender, and geography, including; Indigenous and Inuit, Minority, Black/Brown bodies, Women, Immigrant, LGBTQ2+, lower-income Individuals, Blue-collar workers, Disability, Individuals living outside the urban-center, Animal and Environment. By empowering these subjects, greater equality is achieved.
One example of a heavily unequal power dynamic is between the Trans Mountain Corporation and First Nations people living in British Columbia. The Trans Mountain Corporation is now publicly owned and accountable to the Parliament of Canada. As a result, it should operate a wholly democratic CSR strategy. The Trans Mountain Corporation website states that “Field Studies” with Indigenous groups inform its project development, and that “meaningful” conversations are had between the two parties. And yet, it continues to ignore protests by several First Nations who state the pipeline expansion illegally disrupts traditional lands. Although First Nations groups signed an agreement for pipelines to cross reserves, traditional lands and sacred lands were not included in this agreement – thus, they have a valid legal case. The decision by the Government to move forward with the expansion despite this is indicative of its repeated abuse of power against First Nations people. Claims of social responsibility by the company that pertain to Indigenous peoples are thus incredibly undemocratic and unethical in their disregard for Indigenous value – and the autonomy of First Nations.
“Knowledge is Power”; Education empowers individuals to be in a better position to advocate for themselves. It gives more space to an individual to make freer decisions, which is in turn more democratic and socially responsible. Education and training should be given to individuals that would otherwise not have the opportunity for it. This should aim to provide equal opportunities for people, and to level conversations (including by educating people of their rights). Education should also be given to staff and leadership of the company, to teach them the issues, values, and climate of the spaces they operate in; for instance, training on sexual rights and how to deal with harassment in the workplace.
Education can be critical in overcoming conflict between variables, as it points to transparency and builds trust. For example; a mining company that ignores its impact on climate and does little to educate those affected by it (or even its staff) only aggravates conflict by signalling distrust and abusing an un-democratic power dynamic. A mining company that invests in new technologies and in locals to become future researchers or employees, by contrast, contributes to greater equity, liberty and justice in its CSR strategy.
The interest of a CSR strategy by a company should be clear. Marketing is a positive and ethical feature of CSR because a company that makes more money is good for industry and employees. Further, marketing related to CSR can do a lot towards educating the public above a cause and enhancing visibility. However, CSR solely as a marketing ploy is hugely unethical. CSR strategies with only a marketing interest can piggy-back off of ethical causes to attract consumers without actually supporting the cause. If a company wanted to position the interests of its consumer with that of the company, and have that be reflected in its marketing scheme, it should clearly demonstrate those aligned interests in its policies.
A good example is The Body Shop, which has a company mission to ban animal testing internationally. Together with Cruelty Free International, the Body Shop successfully led a 2013 ban in the European Union against animal testing. It has now launched a #ForeverAgainstAnimalTesting campaign. The 2018 campaign is an international petition presented to the United Nations. As described on their web site, the petition called for the U.N. to “adopt an international convention that will end animal testing for cosmetics products and ingredients everywhere and forever”. This strong campaign signals to consumers the Body Shop is committed to ethical policies regarding animal rights, attracting those consumers with shared values. The company’s CSR strategy is far beyond a marketing interest, and educates the public about unethical practices, leading to political change.
Investigation + Transparency
A CSR strategy that uses investigation and transparency is the most democratic, as open-ness encourages informed internal and external decision-making. The strategy should explore the multitude of interests operating in an environment and should investigate the company’s practices. To me, a third party offering a CSR service is most likely to attain the highest ethics. Third parties are more likely to follow best-practices, as they compete with other CSR consultancies and have reputations contingent on their capacity to provide excellent CSR services. They can see a company more clearly, as they are removed from bias, and can help a company achieve self-awareness. They can help a company balance what it values most with the values of those most impacted by the company – and from there, make informed CSR decisions. Moreover, individuals affected by a company are more likely to trust a third party and will give more honest information to inform decision-making. Lastly, a third party can act as a mediator between a company and its various stakeholders, including non-profits and grassroots organizations.
Canada has recognized the need for external monitoring of companies, and mediating between stakeholders. In January 2018, Canada’s Minister of International Trade, Francois-Philippe Champagne, created a human rights ombudsperson, Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). An advisory board made of diverse stakeholders advises the CORE. According to the government website, the CORE “seek[s] to assist wherever possible in collaboratively resolving disputes or conflicts between impacted communities and Canadian companies.” Importantly, the CORE operates at arms-length from the Canadian government, reports to Parliament, and has investigative rights including to compel documents and witnesses regarding abuse allegations. Despite this, there is a complex dynamic between the Canadian government and many of its Canadian corporations operating abroad. Particularly in the energy and mining sectors, the government can provide immense diplomatic, financial, legal and political support to support success of Canadian mining and gas industries. Given that government has interests in the mining sector, the capacity for this CORE person to work without bias and influence is in question. I believe the further the party is from interest in the case, the better the capacity for productive investigation and transparency, which will lead to more democratic outcomes.
Given CSR is not a law, so much of it rests on the good-faith of whomever is leading the strategy to act in the “best interest” of “society” – and to at the very least, be transparent in their approach and deliver on their promises. Even the CORE can only make recommendations and advise the Canadian government to withhold financial support for companies that are violating human rights. Corporate Social Responsibility is remarkable for its potential to enact social change. And yet, when strategies are not taken seriously enough to be treated like mandatory programs, and with little regulations, CSR can work to the opposite effect. I argue consumers should start paying more attention to CSR strategies with best practices, and support those in their efforts. I also believe groups involved in making CSR strategies in Canada should consider social responsibility from a standpoint that represents the diverse demographic that Canada has. As CSR gains more and more traction, I expect to see more competition for offering the most ethical CSR strategies, an exciting possibility.