Corporate Social Responsibility

In our next class, we will be talking about corporate social responsibility. Now, what does this have to do with Hong Kong and the world, you might ask. We have been discussing the role of business in Hong Kong. Some of our speakers have been critical of the business sector for not supporting political development or cultural activities. The pollution problem has been linked to Hong Kong investment in factories in southern China. Because of the importance of business in Hong Kong and in society in general, we should be talking about what exactly the responsibilities of business are.

As I began to explain in my previous lecture - before we ran out of time - we have seen the power of corporations rise in recent decades. Many major companies have market capitalizations much larger than many countries. In the same way that the emergence of the modern nation state in the West undermined the power of the church, the rise of corporate power, it can be argued, has eclipsed that of national governments. Even the mighty military of the the United States depends in large part on private industry for supplies, weaponry and services.

As the pace of globalization has intensified, the ability of nation states to tackle global problems such as climate change, extremism and terrorism, public health health threats, and the growing income gap and poverty has weakened, particularly in the absence of any strong institutions of global governance. So as nation states have been confronted by the limits to their power, the influence of corporations on communities and the lives of citizens as well as on our environment has expanded considerably.

And so while citizens may still look to governments for solutions and leadership, they now also turn to corporations, perhaps even more so, given the enormous resources and the global presence that many companies have. There is growing acceptance among businesspeople around the world that the company must not just look after the interests of its owners and shareholders but must also be concerned with the welfare of its stakeholders, or any groups, communities, organizations or individuals that might be affected in any way by or have an interest in the corporation's activities.

As one would expect, corporations are often the targets of civil society activism, which has increased in recent years. In Hong Kong, the business sector has received its share of criticism from the public - some of it warranted, some of it undeserved. It is therefore very important for us as critical thinkers to consider CSR in Hong Kong, particularly in our major corporations such as HSBC. If Hong Kong is to secure and further develop its status as a global city, it stands to reason that the SAR should be at the forefront of promoting corporate social responsibility in the region and the world.

A major problem with any discussion of CSR, however, is that there is no single definition of the term. "Corporate social responsibility" is often used interchangeably with the concept of "corporate governance". And despite the more frequent use of the term "sustainability" and the increasing number of institutions that are appointing "sustainability officers", this concept too has remained somewhat ill defined. I look forward to hearing from Teresa Au of HSBC how she defines "corporate social responsibility" and "sustainability".

You might look at the website of the group CSR Asia for more information.