Is Corporate Responsibility Here to Stay?


Businessweek has an interesting story about corporations that are trying to engage in “social responsibility” in order to stay competitive:

Take Sewell Avant. The 25-year-old senior procurement analyst graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2002. During college, he cleaned churches and did regular social projects with fraternity brothers. Now he’s carrying on that tradition at Home Depot. He took a day off, without pay, to help mix concrete at the playground project in Marietta. His entire department will do more kiddie-park construction on a weekend in August. For Avant, volunteering adds meaning to his day-to-day job. “Employees are trying to marry their work and nonwork lives. If the company gives them a chance to do that, then they’re happier,” says C.B. Bhattacharya, associate professor of marketing at Boston University’s School of Management.

That’s why younger companies are baking the social responsibility concept into their culture — and demanding investors accept the cost. Costco Wholesale Corp. has long offered generous compensation to its workers, to the scorn of Wall Street and the detriment of its stock price. In the 1980s, networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. opened its first office in East Palo Alto, Calif., a run-down neighborhood amid the prosperity of Silicon Valley. Cisco Chairman John Morgridge worked as “principal for the day” at a school next door. “We’re in business to get results. This is just a different currency,” says Tae Yoo, Cisco’s vice-president for corporate affairs.

Interesting, though it seems unlikely that the “social responsibility” trend will spread too far. Not so long as Wall Street continues to punish any sort of behavior that deviates from profit-maximization. A few rogue CEOs here and there, like Costco’s James Sinegal, will have the nerve—and ability—to buck the stock market, but they seem the exception rather than the rule. From a political point of view, meanwhile, some corporations may be getting antsy at the fact that most voters—including many conservative voters—increasingly distrust the power of large corporations, and that fear could spark an outburst of “social responsibility.” But in truth, business interests have very little to fear from a political backlash—not so long as they have Congress by the thumbs.

And at most, consumer activists can only train their attention on a small subset of corporations at any given time; so the relatively few companies under fire, like Nike and, perhaps someday, Wal-Mart, may clean up their practices in order to sidle out of the spotlight, but I’m not sure that all adds up to a growing trend. That’s not to disparage the companies that are becoming kinder and gentler; it’s just to say that it seems very unlikely that corporations will do something that can conflict with their bottom line for largely haphazard reasons.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.