Transatlantic perceptions of corporate social responsibility

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As the Editor of a nascent website, I wrote this article in 2008 after attending a CSR conference hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which I later published on EthicsWorld.org. The Chamber also picked up my story for their website and is an example of a successful cross-promotional project.

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Transatlantic perceptions of corporate social responsibility

  1. 1. Transatlantic Perceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility Business representatives from Europe and America discuss how they view the CSR landscapeA recent conference at the Business Civil Leadership Center, the global citizenship armof the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, brought together numerous American corporaterepresentatives and representatives from the American Chambers of Commerce acrossEurope. There is little doubt that the term corporate social responsibility has entered thebusiness mainstream, but there are still different opinions on exactly what it means.Business leaders from Europe and America gathered together to express their ownperceptions of how their companies view CSR initiatives and to share their experiences.Three general trends emerged from the discussions, mainly answering the questions –what motivates CSR projects? What activities constitute best practice? and AreAmericans and Europeans moving toward consensus?All the speakers lamented how negative public perceptions of big business have become.In both Europe and North America, consumers are expecting more of companies thanever before, and with high-speed information networks, companies are more highlyscrutinized as well. A representative from an American office at Coca-Cola described itas a “credibility crisis.” Most agreed that consumers are increasingly less tolerant of“spin.” Even if a company gets it wrong, consumers are looking for the truth – notverbose speeches that attempt to turn it around.In this context, from both sides of the Atlantic, it was agreed that CSR should not be doneon the basis of gaining publicity. One representative from Proctor & Gamble evenexpressed a strategic tendency to stay out of the limelight for fear of having to weather abigger media storm when something inevitably goes wrong. A representative fromDaimler with a European background stressed the importance of strategically tying CSRinitiatives to business goals. It was suggested that Europe has a stronger tradition ofmerging CSR and business practices as mutual goals, whereas the United States has had amore vibrant tradition of philanthropy, which has only more recently broadened.An American representative mentioned how many U.S. companies want to know the nutsand bolts of how a project will be carried out, whereas European companies are willing tobe more “aspirational.” This is a point he encouraged both sides to be aware of whencooperating on future projects.Europe was also described as having had more success integrating environmental issuesinto their business practices. There is a trend in European businesses to use the term“sustainability” rather than CSR, which reflects more strongly the environmentalcomponent. European consumers are also more sensitive to organic labeling, a trend inthe United States that has been slower to catch on, one European representativementioned. This may also reflect the difference in the U.S. tendency to be moreconcerned with risk mitigation and Europe with overall business strategy. The U.S.
  2. 2. government is also less involved in regulatory activities, which could also have an effecton the types of activities American companies chose versus European companies.On the whole, leaders on both sides agreed CSR should be grounded in business strategy,but there was more hesitation to admit that the U.S. and Europe are moving toward auniversal approach. Given the regional and sector differences between the twocontinents, many said it was difficult to imagine a common framework. The regulatoryenvironments in the U.S. and the UK are different, as well as consumer preferences.Despite the contrasts, however, there was more enthusiasm for increased transatlanticcooperation.

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