II. Meaningful Change?
What does all this activity mean for the promotion of sustainable development in the South? Are the numerous initiatives being taken by business enough to “overcome the inertia of the present destructive course, and to create a new momentum towards sustainable development” (Schmidheiny, 1992)? Opinions on this question are often highly polarized.
While recognizing that the pace and location of change is still uneven, the WBCSD suggests (Schmidheiny et al., 1997) that various changes in corporate policy and practice point to a “paradigm shift” from:
This position is contradicted by those who accuse corporations of greenwash: inherently “socially and environmentally destructive corporations [are] attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty” (Corporate Watch, 1996). Accordingly, many corporate policies and initiatives lack substance, are not implemented or amount to tinkering with a system that encourages “business-as-usual” (Welford, 1997).
In practice it is extremely difficult to assess the current state of play regarding corporate environmental and social responsibility. A notorious feature of much of the writing on this subject is that “the evidence” seems to derive from a handful of anecdotes and case studies and/or broad generalizations about how firms behave in the context of capitalism and globalization. Particularly confusing is the fact that many companies that are singled out for “best practice” are also those identified as bad practitioners (see Box 3 above). Surveys that attempt to quantify how many companies have improved their environmental and social performance are relatively few in number and generally measure changes in corporate policy and procedure rather than environmental and social impacts.
What most commentators can agree on is that corporate responsibility, as presently constituted, is a fairly fragmented and uneven affair. The number of companies that have taken a lead in this field is very small. Perhaps the most prominent business association in this field is the WBCSD, which has only 120 members. Even though these include some of the largest TNCs, it should be remembered that there are approximately 60,000 TNCs (UNCTAD, 1999). The illusion of more profound change stems partly from the fact that the TNCs and business or industry associations involved are big players on the international stage and are actively publicizing their new approach through the media, corporate advertising, publications, conferences and international institutions. It is also partly due to the vast body of literature that exists on “best practices” and the policies and practices of a relatively small group of companies that have taken a lead in the field of corporate responsibility. Such information is sometimes misleadingly construed as somehow representative of a larger universe of companies.12
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