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May 28, 2003
Religious Institutions Issue Benchmarks for Corporate Social Responsibility Performance
    by William Baue

A global coalition of religious activists have published the third edition of a comprehensive set of guidelines for corporate social and environmental performance.

Last week, religious activists from around the world released a set of benchmarks by which companies and their stakeholders can measure corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance. The Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility: Bench Marks for Measuring Business Performance provides a comprehensive blueprint to guide companies' adoption of, and activists' advocacy for, CSR best practice. The Bench Marks address broad issues such as environmental protectionism and specific issues such as guaranteeing access to affordable pharmaceuticals, including HIV/AIDS medications.

Although the Bench Marks spring from a faith-based context, they address the ecumenical issues inherent to operating businesses on a global scale, such as worker and human rights protections. They also arrive well-tested. The Washington, DC-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which helped author the first edition of the principles in 1995, has used the Bench Marks to guide its shareowner action at more than a dozen companies.

"For example, ICCR members have worked with the Gap (ticker: GPS) on sweatshop labor conditions in Gap supplier factories and helped set up independent monitoring groups in Central America," said Rev. David M. Schilling, ICCR's director of global corporate responsibility. The Bench Marks call for adherence to International Labor Organization (ILO) standards as well as Universal Declaration of Human Rights conventions.

The Bench Marks have informed ICCR's filing of shareowner resolutions and communications with other institutional investors on CSR advocacy. As well, they provided the vocabulary for dialogue with top executives at such diverse companies as Disney (DIS), ExxonMobil (XOM), Ford (F), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Nike (NKE), Unocal (UCL), and Wal-Mart (WMT).

The London-based Ecumenical Council on Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), which co-authored the benchmarks' first edition, used the 1998 second edition of the Bench Marks as a platform for its CSR reports on BP (BP), Beyond Innovation, and Shell (RD), Telling Shell. ECCR used the 2003 Bench Marks text for its CSR report on Astra Zeneca (AZN).

This current third edition is the product of a steering committee that met in South Africa in October 2002. Whereas the previous two editions were the work of representatives from developed countries in the northern hemisphere, the steering committee added the perspectives of representatives of developing regions from the southern hemisphere.

A May 2000 study by the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility of Canada (TCCR--now known as KAIROS-Canada) revealed much room for improvement in CSR practice. The study, entitled Corporate Social & Environmental Responsibility: Commitment, Conduct & Transparency, used the Bench Marks framework to assess CSR practices at eight Canadian companies, including Placer Dome (PDG), Shell Canada, and Talisman (TLM).

The report found that seventy-five percent of the companies studied exhibited an unacceptable level of implementation of CSR practices as outlined in the Bench Marks framework.

Besides guiding shareowner action and companies' CSR practice, the Bench Marks may influence the composition of other CSR rating and reporting mechanisms. A November 2000 TCCR report evaluated Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, which represent the international yardstick for CSR reporting, compared to the criteria outlined in the Bench Marks. The report found that GRI guidelines adequately assess companies operating in relatively stable social and economic situations.

"However, in contexts of social unrest, pervasive and enduring economic disparity, or where persistent and systematic violations of human rights occur, GRI Guidelines need greater definitional substance," stated Daniel Gennarelli, corporate issues researcher and policy advocate at KAIROS. "Our analyses called for improvements in social performance content, particularly in specifying comportment to international human rights and labour standards, and the inclusion of reporting considerations for social justice principles and Indigenous community expectations."

"The newly revised Bench Marks may be used to assess again the adequacy of the August 2002 Draft of the GRI," Mr. Gennarelli added.


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