Six major charities will take part in a new forum established by the European Commission to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) across the Continent.
Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Global Witness, International Alert, Oxfam and Save the Children will join companies, business networks, trade unions and NGOs in the EC's multi-stakeholder forum on CSR.
The body aims to achieve a consensual way forward on CSR based on the buy-in of all parties. Last week the British government adopted a similar tack in its White Paper on the Companies Bill, rejecting legislation as a means of forcing companies to behave ethically.
The decision to rely on corporate goodwill prompted criticism from the Co-operative Bank, which was last week named the most socially responsible business in the world at the Corporate Conscience Awards in New York.
"Mandatory social reporting should be in place at least for large companies,
said Nick Websdell, a member of the bank's ecology unit. "Legislation is the only way to produce the change needed if business is to improve its social responsibility record and restore the public's trust."
But CSR Europe, a Brussels-based business-driven network that first mooted the stakeholder approach, dismissed the bank's argument. Spokeswoman Nicki Bennett said: "We are coming at this from the business standpoint and we feel it is essential to have a forum that is inclusive of all stakeholders."
In announcing the forum, the EC emphasised the voluntary nature of CSR and the need to promote a business case for it. This will be one of the forum's key aims, along with research.
Malcolm Guy, of corporate responsibility consultancy EQ Management, broadly welcomed the development. "People will be disappointed legislation hasn't come through but it would be a mistake to push it too quickly. There needs to be a holistic approach. Forcing companies to provide this kind of information means legislation, which means prosecutions, and that means conflict,
In another development, Business in the Community plans to create an index of the top 350 FTSE companies based on their business ethics.
It will rank companies according to their policies on issues such as workplace practices and the environment and hopes to have the index functioning by March next year.