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New UNRISD/NGLS Publication Looks at Corporate Responsibility

1 Aug 2002



Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the economic power of transnational corporations. This has been due, in part, to economic liberalization and globalization, which have created a climate conducive to foreign direct investment and international trade. Yet there is serious concern that the increasing power and freedom of transnational corporations (TNCs) is not matched by an increase in their responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of their activities.

Although some of the world’s largest TNCs are seeking to project an image of corporate social responsibility, the extent to which they are really improving their performance can be questioned. The earlier emphasis on governmental regulation to improve the social and environmental impacts of transnational corporations has ceded ground to “corporate self-regulation” and “voluntary initiatives” (such as codes of conduct, investment in community development projects, and improvement in environmental management systems) on the part of corporations themselves. That is, instead of being seen as issues primarily for governments to deal with, they are increasingly regarded as matters for which TNCs, or their trade associations, should set standards.

In this new volume, a joint publication of UNRISD and the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), some of the strengths and limitations of company codes of conduct and “multistakeholder” standard-setting, monitoring and certification schemes are identified. A comprehensive bibliography and listing of websites on corporate social and environmental responsibility is also provided.

The first section, “Corporate Codes of Conduct: Self-Regulation in a Global Economy”, written by Rhys Jenkins, details the changes that have taken place in corporate regulation, explores what is behind the growing number of corporate codes of conduct, and describes the different stakeholders involved.

Section two, Peter Utting’s contribution on “Regulating Business via Multistakeholder Initiatives: A Preliminary Assessment”, outlines the move from state-led regulation in the 1960s and 1970s, to corporate self-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, to the more recent trend of co-regulation involving corporations, NGOs and multilateral organizations.

Section three is Renato Alva Pino’s survey of information sources on corporate social and environmental responsibility, including print and web-based resources on codes of conduct, certification and reporting, ethical investment, fair trade, regulation, partnerships, and critical perspectives and campaigns.

The analysis in this volume suggests that not only many voluntary initiatives, but also the corporate social responsibility agenda more generally, need to be more sensitive to developing country concerns and realities, and based on consultative processes that include labour and Southern actors as key participants. In addition, voluntary initiatives need to address the fact that global trade and policy regimes often restrict, rather than facilitate, the ability of developing countries to comply with higher labour and environmental standards.

Voluntary Approaches to Corporate Responsibility: Readings and a Resource Guide,
UNRISD and NGLS (eds.), was published as an NGLS Development Dossier in July 2002. This volume is available free of charge from NGLS or from UNRISD.