David Parish shows how companies have been reluctant in the past to take corporate responsibility, sometimes with shocking consequences. However, the climate today is better, although he asks whether this is simply box-ticking rather than real generosity. He concludes by citing the biblical injunctions on care for the poor and marginalised, and suggests legislation to enforce CSR.
Corporate Social Responsibility. Three words that to some reflect the way that business is developing a social conscience. To others they are a mere Public Relations fig leaf, masking the fact that some businesses continue to exploit people for profit. I have heard it described as ‘Cringeworthy Selfserving Rubbish’.
As with most areas of business it depends on the company and the context in which business is being carried out. Does Christian teaching have anything to add to the debate?
Since the introduction of factory methods of production and largescale use of labour in the 1870s business has been wrestling with its conscience. To a large extent this concerns whether profit should be viewed as the sole mark of the success of an enterprise. Karl Marx, writing Das Kapital in 1867 in his small and shabby apartment in London, drew most of his example of exploitation of labour from the factories of Northern England, where the father of his close friend and collaborator Engels owned a factory. Marx’s own wife wished that he had made more capital instead of just writing about it; their chairs were so dirty that one friend brought a cloth with him to sit on.
I always feel irony was lost on Marx. Perhaps his Germanic background made him unable to see that it was only Engels’ inherited wealth for the most part that enabled him to devote time to writing, and that his use of the British Library for his research was indirectly funded by the taxes of the wealthy mill owners he condemned. Even today we need to be mindful of the broader ways in which business contributes to society.
In the same era the ‘Chocolate’ Quakers, Fry, Rowntree and Cadbury, were all looking at ways to improve both working conditions and the quality of their products. It was not unknown at the time for some makers of drinking chocolate to add chalk dust to the product. This period is wonderfully described by Deborah Cadbury in her book Chocolate Wars1.
Slow progress was made during the early and mid 1900s to improve product quality and also to protect the consumer. This was often achieved by individuals being willing to go to court to challenge the company that had harmed …