NGOs are increasingly taking on the role of corporate watchdogs.
They have targeted a number of corporations including Shell and Nike in campaigns to get them to change the way they operate to prevent any social and environmental damage. There has also been a big push to get companies to put at least some of the profits they make back into the communities in which they operate.
In response, a number of companies have taken up the corporate social responsibility banner and are publishing reports to demonstrate their efforts in these areas.
As more companies begin to bring out social reports, though, NGOs are starting to question their validity - are the reports really based on good social and environmental management, or do they constitute rhetoric and PR fluff?
UK NGOs have formed the Core Coalition Campaign which is pushing for the introduction of legal standards for social reporting. Companies, they feel, cannot be trusted to set the benchmarks themselves. Friends of the Earth this week highlighted the issue, criticising Virgin for advertising a new corporate social responsibility post for which the only qualifications required were in marketing.
Through their corporate campaigning, NGOs have moved the accountability debate up the media and public agenda, but in doing so have laid not only corporates, but also themselves, open to criticism about accountability and transparency standards.
There are few NGOs around who produce reports on the social and environmental impact of their activities, and companies are beginning to ask the question: 'why should they be held to account by organisations who do not meet the standards they are asking for?' If NGOs want to push the CSR debate forwards, they need to begin by setting the standards themselves.