August 04, 2006
Book Review--International Documents on Corporate Responsibility
by Bill Baue
A comprehensive compendium of important codes on corporate social responsibility.
Seeing the book International Documents on Corporate Responsibility (Edward Elgar
2006)--more than two inches thick with norms and codes on corporate social and environmental
practice--prompts opposing reactions. First, in the electronic age, the question arises: why use
up paper and glue to create a book of resources that are almost all readily available on the
Internet instead of just creating a website with links? Picking up the book and flipping through
its pages, however, generates a tangible appreciation for the sheer volume of conventions devoted
to corporate social responsibility (CSR) in a way that the web cannot.
necessary for the assembly and not the translation," states Stephen Tully, the law professor at the
London School of Economics who edited the
edition, in the preface.
Thankfully Prof. Tully abides by this statement, limiting his
preface to a relatively short treatise explaining the context of global corporate social
responsibility (CSR) codes (for those who can understand his dense academic legalese.) One of the
more interesting concepts to arise out of the preface is the notion of "code fatigue," which is
readily apparent from the hundreds of instruments, standards, and laws in the book that companies
must attend to.
"This text could constitute a starting point towards the eventual
codification of international norms within a convention on corporate accountability, possibly
emanating from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)," Prof. Tully states.
Interestingly, Friends of the
Earth (FoE) has already proposed just such a
consolidation. The very first section of the book, which starts with the UN Global Compact, includes FoE's "Proposed International
Convention on Corporate Accountability." Here is an instance where Prof. Tully's brief
commentary is very helpful--he points out that the document was submitted by FoE at the 2002 World
Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, an event that has largely
receded into memory.
One aspect distinguishing FoE's recommended convention is its
binding nature, compared to the so-called "private voluntary initiatives" (or PVIs) populating the
book (maybe this explains why the convention has not been adopted!) This is an instance where a
tidbit from the preface helps inform readers, as Prof. Tully expounds on how corporations as
non-states are largely "invisible" to international law.
"However, it is characteristic of
the incremental lawmaking process that formally non-binding materials (so-called 'soft law')
subsequently undergoes a process of 'hardening,'" Prof. Tully writes.
In other words,
codes that start out as voluntary initiatives eventually work their way into the fabric of legal
precedents. All the more reason to understand all the material in the book. Indeed, the very
publishing of the book may advance the very calcification of these norms.
The book of
course includes such well-known codes as the Ceres Principles (written in
response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill), Sullivan Principles (conceived in
response to South African apartheid), and
MacBride Principles (addressing corporate involvement in Northern Ireland). It also includes
codes that may deserve a higher profile--such as the Global Exchange/International Labor Rights
Fund US Business
Principles for Human Rights of Workers in China--given recent and long-standing reports of
human rights abuses in China.
Oddly, the book does not include some very high profile
codes, such as the Equator Principles (EPs), a banking industry initiative covering project
finance, or its competitor, the Collevecchio
Declaration on Financial Institutions and Sustainability, which nongovernmental organizations
prefer. (The EPs are mentioned under the UNEP Statement by Financial Institutions on
the Environment and Sustainable Development, which at this point is much less widely recognized
than the EPs.)
The book also gives short shrift to some very significant reporting codes.
It dumps the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Social Accountability International SA8000, and
AccountAbility AA1000 standards into a final
chapter without naming them in the table of contents or including any of their text in the chapter.
Given the enormity of the task, it is certainly understandable that the book falls
somewhat short of being completely comprehensive--indeed, achieving such a goal would prove
impossible. In many ways, beyond being an important reference resource, the book's significance is
in its very being--the fact that codes of corporate responsibility are being compiled demonstrates
an acknowledgement of their value.