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January 22, 2004
Book Review--The Corporate Responsibility Code Book
    by William Baue

This book is no thriller, but it is indispensable for anyone seeking to grasp the complex landscape of the multitudinous tools that measure corporate social responsibility.


The Corporate Responsibility Code Book is not a light read, neither in the sense of its physical heft nor in terms of the import of its contents. The book weighs so much because it reprints the complete texts of 32 of the most important corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles, codes, norms, and standards. For those who work in the CSR field, having those texts in one place is reason enough to buy the book.

The very existence of 32 CSR tools, which author Deborah Leipziger admits represents the tip of the CSR iceberg, boggles the mind and requires a book such as this one to map out the CSR landscape before one could possibly navigate it. Ms. Leipziger points out that even the semantic landscape of CSR is still shifting, with consensus on the field's standard terminology yet to be reached. Her choice of the more general term "corporate responsibility" (CR) over CSR illustrates this issue. Third, even the terms "principles," "codes," "norms," and "standards" are commonly misunderstood and misapplied, so Ms. Leipziger's explanation of the distinctions between them is invaluable.

While the compilation of the most significant CSR tools is important, Ms. Leipziger's evaluation of each one's "strengths and weaknesses" represents the book's other primary strength.

For example, in evaluating the United Nations Global Compact, an initiative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to address environmental and human rights issues, she summarizes its praises and then pinpoints its criticisms as exemplified by Nestle (ticker: NESN.SW).

"[C]ritics are concerned that companies with poor social and environmental records will be able to benefit from their association with the Compact, in effect 'blue-washing' their image," Ms. Leipziger writes. "For example, Nestle, which has long been criticized for marketing infant formula to mothers in the developing world, has joined the Compact."

"This presents a dilemma in that UNICEF, a UN body, has been one of the critics of Nestle, but it also represents an opportunity for dialogue," Ms. Leipziger concludes.

In assessing the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a voluntary initiative promoting corporate transparency on environmental and social issues, Ms. Leipziger again points out its benefits before identifying potential pitfalls.

"Many companies find the large number of indicators within the GRI framework daunting," she writes. "Reporting can also be expensive, especially for large organizations."

The costs of reporting in 2001 were $1 million for Rio Tinto (RTP), $350,000 for Ford (F), and $240,000 for Agilent Technologies (A), according to the book, and these costs do not even include data collection and verification.

Amongst the many CSR tools are two codes of individual corporations--the Business Principles of Shell (RD) and the "Credo" of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). This inclusion distinguishes these two companies as forerunners in CSR. However, Ms. Leipziger does not expand on the downsides of these codes, which could be considered a weakness of her book. One would expect her to mention the problem of corporations failing to live up to their own stated codes, but she remains mum on this thorny issue.

Another potential weakness of the book is Ms. Leipzinger's objectivity. She waxes at length about the strengths of Social Accountability 8000, a labor rights certification that she helped design, though to be fair she does list some weaknesses as well. In contrast, she remains terse about the strengths of the AccountAbility 1000 Framework, an overarching framework for corporate responsibility.

Readers would also likely appreciate a more expansive discussion in the conclusion, which she devotes to convergence.

"According to Mark Wade of Shell, a consolidation is necessary among the [bewildering array] of codes and guidelines," writes Ms. Leipzinger (brackets in the original).

However, she gives short shrift to what such a consolidation might look like. Perhaps that is because this aspect of the landscape is still largely unmapped, a terra incognita like that represented by early cartographers who drew imaginary creatures on their maps, to borrow an image from Ms. Leipziger. Luckily, Greenleaf Publishing, which put out the book, promises to keep the material updated on its website, so readers can stay abreast of how the CSR field matures.

 

 
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