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January 16, 2002
Canadian Citizens and Investors Favor Corporate Accountability
    by William Baue

According to a recent poll, as well as public hearings conducted by a government commission, Canadians largely support corporate social responsibility.

On January 9, the Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability Commission announced the findings of a poll conducted by Vector Research between September 28 and October 8, 2001. Vector interviewed 2006 adults aged 18 and older throughout Canada by telephone. The results suggest that investors and non-investors alike support the idea of corporate accountability.

In a report on the survey, the commission encapsulated the two extremes of the social accountability issue. On the one hand, some people believe that a corporation's responsibility is exclusively financial: to generate profits for its shareowners. On the other hand, some argue that financial success cannot be divorced from social accountability.

The poll asked respondents to choose the view they supported the most. In an effort to avoid influencing respondents, the two views were presented in random order. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Canadian citizens chose corporate accountability over pure profit. Of the Canadians that identified themselves as investors, 74 percent placed greater importance on corporate accountability. The margin of error in such a sampling is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Other results from the poll demonstrate strong support for corporate accountability, both in the general population and in the investment community. For example, 84 percent of the Canadian population believes that the federal government should pursue multilateral international agreements on corporate accountability, or implement unilateral codes if international agreements cannot be reached. Approximately the same percentage of investors (81 percent) felt the same.

The one area where Canadians expressed skepticism regarding corporate accountability is consumer commitment. Almost three-quarters of those polled (73 percent) doubted that consumers would pay more for products and services produced by companies that operate in socially responsible ways. More than three-quarters of investors (81 percent) believed this to be true as well.

The poll's findings augment information gathered between February and June 2001 at public hearings held by the commission in seven cities across Canada: Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver.

"We invited organizations and individuals from all sectors of Canadian society . . . to participate," said Susan McMurray, the commission's project manager. "Accordingly, we heard from organizations that believe that no changes to corporate accountability are required, as well as those who believe that we need much stronger regulation to reverse 'corporate rule.' Interestingly, though, the majority of participants had overlapping ideas."

For example, most organizations agreed that Canada should promote corporate accountability globally; at issue was whether it should do so multilaterally or unilaterally. Some groups proposed that multilateral agreements would promote a more level playing field among international competitors, while other groups promoted cautious unilateral action.

"Still others argued that the apparent conflict between competitiveness and corporate social responsibility is a red herring and that, possibly, unilateral progress on corporate accountability would enhance competitiveness," the commission stated.

"We anticipated discord, but we also found consensus," said Ms. McMurray. "Most participants, including those from the business world, strongly agree that as a matter of daily routine, corporate practices must take into account broader social responsibility. Some companies already do, and at our hearings, Alcan, The Body Shop, and Shell Canada discussed how they do so, as well as the benefits to their organizations of doing so. The tougher question, then, was how to help others become more socially responsible."

The commission will address this issue in its final report, which it will release at the end of January.


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