Whilst some of the contemporary debate about Corporate Responsibility (CSR) may appear new to some, it is worth remembering that debates about environmental and social impacts in business are at least as old as the industrial revolution itself. Even in the 19th century, some employers made a business case for improving the living conditions of workers and in early 20th century Michigan, Henry Ford argued that raising wages so that the workers who made his cars could also afford to buy them was good both for his workers and his company.
Conscientious citizens have long used their influence as consumers and investors to influence the private sector. Although boycotts can be counter-productive and are often limited in their effect, they can have huge symbolic power as Gandhi famously demonstrated. The 1970s and 1980s campaigns against investment in apartheid South Africa and some of the Western multinationals operating there, greatly increased global public and media interest in concepts like ethical investment and corporate responsibility.
Key CSR issues and the UN Global Compact Principles
Although hugely valuable and influential, ethical choices, such as choosing an ethical bank account, or buying goods certified as organic or fair trade are almost by definition always at first a minority choice. There is also often a moral dimension – who is more useful for the good of wider society, an investor who avoids holding shares in a tobacco company because they do not want to profit from the harm inherent in the product, or the citizen who campaigns democratically for the government to discourage use by raising taxes? (One answer by the way is that someone could be both.)
Nonetheless, even though the common interest of practitioners is to improve impacts against ESG standards across the board and to mainstream good practice, it would be short sighted to dismiss ethical/moral choices as always a niche/minority activity. The end of 2012 and start of 2013 saw the tax debate originating in the UK spread globally (after many years of diligent campaigning and being overlooked by much of the media except for Private Eye)