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“There’s no such thing as corporate citizenship”

Charlie Hodkinson-Ashford

“There’s no such thing as corporate citizenship.”

That was Martin Regalia, the chief economist for the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group in the United States. In an interview published yesterday, he railed against President Obama’s comment that companies who move overseas for tax advantages are “unpatriotic”, arguing instead that a business’s first responsibility is to make money.

Regalia’s words probably came as a surprise to his colleagues at the Chamber’s Corporate Citizenship Center, whose partner companies aim “to advance the impact of their positive work in society”: including preventing obesity, cutting energy use and advancing women’s economic empowerment.

I recently wrote about those who argue that corporate responsibility is a cynical ploy, meant only to help greedy businesses make a fast buck. There is, of course, an opposite camp, of those who see any mention of environmental or social goals as an unacceptable perversion of the free market.

But what of the companies who hover somewhere in between – wanting to make money, but conscious of their relationships with the world around them (and aware that neglecting those relationships isn’t great for a company’s long-term prospects)?

There will certainly be companies out there who welcomed Regalia’s comments. That’s the issue with trying to represent the interests of more than 3 million businesses simultaneously – different businesses have different interests. In 2009, Apple and others pulled out of the Chamber of Commerce over its stance on climate change. In 2012, Skanska followed suit in a row over green building standards.

So what’s the lesson for businesses on the sustainability journey? Put your money where your mouth is. As Google and Facebook recently found out, it’s embarrassing to be championing carbon reduction and clean energy if you’re simultaneously funding a group that opposes them.

In their recent book, Lobbying for Good, Paul and Philip Monaghan map out the alternative route, giving examples of companies who are clubbing together to “advocate progressive legislative change”. One such group is Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), launched by Starbucks, Nike, Timberland, Levi’s and Sun Microsystems in 2008. Today, BICEP includes 32 leading companies, and its Climate Declaration has been signed by over 1,000. Meanwhile, take IKEA, Unilever, NRG and the members of the newly created We Mean Business coalition, who all took part in last weekend’s People’s Climate March in New York.

The issue is not whether corporate citizenship exists. It’s whether aspiring corporate citizens are shouting loudly enough.

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