OPINION: The dilemma of corporate help

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

High on the list of absurdities at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg is the prominence of the promoters of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). From the BMW-sponsored globe outside the main conference centre - presumably a hand-me-down from a marketing strategy meeting on how to fill the planet with cars - to the evangelical McDonald's brochures on "making the world a better place", it is hard not to laugh out loud.

Crucial to CSR gurus is what they call "dialogue with stakeholders".

In third sector terms, that means they want to talk and listen to charities working on development and sustainability.

The temptation is to dismiss the whole thing as a cynical exercise in "greenwashing

and refuse to be used as a fig leaf for multi-nationals which, post-Seattle and Genoa, have realised that their image needs a tweak. But before shutting the door to these rogues, it is worth reflecting on what we might just be missing. Yes, in an ideal world, McDonald's would sell wholesome products bought from local sources for a fair price, but that clearly isn't on the agenda. What may be more possible is to persuade the apparently conscience-stricken firms to offer to do some good to offset the bad they are currently inflicting. The weighing process will be a complex one, but could end up in the black.

The danger is that in our justifiable cynicism about CSR initiatives, charities will end up countering the ridiculous talk of the self-flagellating businesses with our own otherworldliness. BMW, after all, does well because people want to drive cars. People want to eat McDonald's. It is not a case of consumers being forced to buy these products. Faced by a choice between God and the devil, humankind has always been more tempted by the latter.

So let's talk. Taking entrenched positions has never moved matters on, but, however opportunistic the origins of CSR, it does at least offer the chance, somewhere down the line, of change and conversion.

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