Good Works for Fun and Profit: Socially Responsible Businesspeople Invade San Francisco

bsr_logo_white.pngYesterday I swung by the 2007 Business for Social Responsibility‘s annual conference. A BSR coordinator told me that more than 1,300 people had registered, and when I arrived, it looked as if most of them were milling around the imposing lobby of San Francisco’s Grand Hyatt Regency hotel.

Why were they there? Cynics will always say that where business is concerned, social responsibility is useful only for PR purposes. In some cases, that still might be true, but these days, this idea is (thankfully) quickly becoming outmoded. At one session I attended, “Women’s Health: The Key to Development?,” the overall message was a no-brainer: When young female factory employees have access to medical care and information about workers’ rights, absenteeism declines and overall morale improves. The logistics of such initiatives, though, can get hairy. In China, for example, factories typically won’t allow any programs that could prompt workers to organize, so educators have to sneak lessons about labor rights into their health classes. Clever.

This is not to say that PR wasn’t on the minds of many conference attendees. Another session, “NGOs in the YouTube World: Prepare for the Onslaught” packed a large conference room. The crowd laughed nervously as a panelist showed how Oxfam skewered Starbucks in a YouTube video about the company’s poor treatment of coffee growers in Ethiopia. They seemed to cheer up a bit when they learned about the outcome: Starbucks cleaned up its act and made a response video, and Oxfam posted a thank you video in return. (You can see the whole heartwarming exchange here).

More companies seem to be figuring out that ostentatious displays of social responsibility are, as a rule, cringeworthy. But not everyone has learned this important lesson. Amidst the programs, annual reports, and maps of the hotel in my conference goody bag, I found some corporate schmaltz—a small purple Hallmark portfolio (Hallmark is one of the conference’s main sponsors) containing three sample greeting cards and a sappy, glitter-strewn bit of text entitled “Hallmark’s Environmental Vision.” (“Enriching lives is our business and our passion. It is our promise for tomorrow as well as for today…”). Hallmark’s glitter is now all over my keyboard, and the sample cards have gone to my recycle bin. Another souvenir was a booklet called If You Decide To Quit Smoking, produced by Philip Morris. Needless to say, this too headed directly into my recycle bin. Guess this year’s conference theme, “designing a sustainable future,” did not apply to the goody bags.