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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.

"Effort is 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.


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