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Involuntarily pulled into the fray 

A few days back, James Spath opened up a very interesting comment in the CSR wiki which many of you might have missed as it was pretty deeply embedded in the bowels of the RESIST template in the CSR wiki space.


Jim was responding to the Invitation to RESIST call to action posted by James Farrar (which invites participation in Transparency International’s initiative to help in an exercise to manage corruption risk). Jim Spath had been voicing some very specific concerns over the particular spheres of influence of individuals in an organization as contrasted to the actions of managements of organizations in such cases.  While I was still chewing on Jim’s keen observations, Dennis Howlett posted a An ethical question describing labor abuses and the supply chain and questioning the extent to which a supplier gets “sucked into” social responsibility debates, even though a vendor “could not have know anything about the abuses”.  

Role of the Community 

Dennis asked how customers (we as a community?) might respond.  This threw me back again to Jim’s questions.  Personal responsibility?  Corporate responsibility? Governmental responsibility?  And in that mix,  what can our community members do?  To answer the question of how an individual as well as an organization may participate one needs to have a better understanding of this evolving sphere of social responsibility and the expanded meaning of corporate social responsibility and accountability.  To add a further element of complexity, or perhaps to better comprehend the complexity of personal versus organizational versus governmental interventions, James Farrar posted a new post on ZDnet called: Human Rights: An Inconvenient Truth.  The premise seems to be that one needs to consider the roles, not only of businesses and individuals and governments in the chain of responsiblity, but also “global intergovernmental standards”.  James Farrar quotes John Ruggie, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for business and human rights ,as saying:

when the challenge we face is imposing human rights obligations on states there is no “higher” expression of authority than international legal norms and instruments that we can turn to. Hence our options are limited. In contrast, corporations are subject to multiple sources of authority higher than themselves, including home and host states, shareholders, broader market forces, and their more informal social licenses to operate. All can and need to be mobilized in devising an effective response to business-related human rights challenges.”


All can and need to be mobilized


So exactly what does it mean “all can and need to be mobilized”? 


As part of the “all”, let’s take a step back and examine our own access to practical steps and recourse to actions. Even more preliminarily, how can we begin to think about accountability and responsibility here on SDN/BPX?

Practical steps 

Start from audit.  Dennis is no stranger to audit and accountability.  While most of us might associate audit with its financial meaning, Dennis and James (and a growing number of members of our community) extend our thinking to other realms beyond financial.  As we increase our understanding of what sustainability and CSR goals are really meant to address, we understand that accountability ideally audits and analyzes not only the financial indicators but also the social and environmental ones as well.  (I’m learning this analysis approach is called, triple-bottom line.)  In the example that Dennis surfaced, the conclusion was that in this particular case of alleged human rights abuse the fiduciary concerns were the only ones receiving attention by the company about which  the allegations of abuse were made.  The question then: how to change (force) that company’s focus to include the social and environmental indicators as well.


Even with the best of intentions, the act of creating standards and metrics around triple bottom line is a enormous challenge.  The story Dennis shared illustrates why. 


1.  First, let’s consider the shock value of the story Dennis exposed for us here which  is dramatic and powerful.  Few would admit to wanting to buy “dirty” products or be associated directly with evil manufacturing practices. Those in the community who are more active and disturbed by such allegations might consider taking action on a personal level.  For example:  community members could examine an organization’s social responsibility statements on their website where often direct correspondence to the company is encouraged.  Jim Spath gives an example of how he did this on a particular website when he was confronted with some questionable practices which disturbed him as a shareholder of a company.  Thus we must determine if, in the story, what part of the supply chain we are identifying with.  Customer? Vendor? Stakeholder? Shareholder? 

2.  As an employee of a company which his part of the “global supply chain” in question, one can/should raise their voice to their own social responsibility organizations or managements whenever there is a fear of abuse that compromises the integrity of said company.  Raising such an alarm can be done in questions concerning corporate  responsibility.


(Although, as James Farrar points out this is very complex: “The problem comes in the actions of many partners and suppliers across the value chain and the subsequent dilution of responsibility”  Regardless, one can and should raise issue within the context of one’s own organization.) 


3.  As a community of partners, stakeholders and customers one can participate in activities that call for their own organizations to make transparent and clear what those organizations are doing to be socially responsible.  SAP as a software company can take a leadership role in this.  In our own invitation in the CSR wiki, SAP invites the community to: “Tell us what indicators SAP should use to measure its success and report on its status in different areas. For example, how could SAP contribute to the environment indicators? How does a company car policy contribute to the carbon footprint of a company? What could SAP do to limit CO2 emission?”. 

We are in the process of evolving this public space (CSR and Sustainability Wiki)  intended to be a collaborative space for such conversations.


 4.  Dennis’ blog painfully reminds us of the power of “the story”.  A story moves hypothetical abuse out of the abstract realm to the actual.  When reading about the role of illustrative stories,  I found this particular blog entry useful.  It is called: From Corporate Responsibility to Backstory Management.  Even if you are not entirely enamoredwith the word, “backstory”  you might find the ideas it expresses around aspiring for a “clean” story a good goal for your organization. 


“We live in an ethically compromised global economy, and almost every aspect of our lives is compromised as a result. But by acknowledging the gaps between practice and aspiration, and setting concrete plans for bridging those gaps, we lift a good part of that burden.” 

Call to Action 

So this is a call to action: “the path to really managing your backstory runs through big visions, hard targets and open admission of shortcomings. Shoe manufacturers should work to envision a boldly responsible shoe, one which not only incorporates their ambitions about the future of footwear, but also encompasses the cutting-edge standards in ethical behavior: a shoe, say, that has a one-planet ecological footprint and meets the highest possible labor standards. That company should share the vision of that shoe with every one of its customers.”

As a company/community of knowledge workers, what kind of  visions, behaviors and yes, shortcomings, do we wish to share?

Even if the truth is “inconvenient” we had better embrace it and acknowledge our responsibilty in the value chain.  And yes that means all of us: stakeholders, individuals, employees, and organizations alike.  None, it would seem are exempt.

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