Corporate Responsibility: Firms open up to tough questions on ethics

Joe Gill

A new online forum is inviting businesses to be as honest as possible about their social, environmental and ethical policies.

SEEcompanies.com has so far persuaded 18 businesses to face 50 tough questions about their activities on subjects such as corporate governance, donations to charity, ethical trading and treatment of the workforce.

In the first instance, answers fall into 'yes' and 'no' categories and are scored '1' or '0' respectively. Responding companies are then required to give context and evidence to support their initial responses.

The questionnaire has been compiled with partner organisations including the New Economics Foundation, environmental charity Global Action Plan, CSR research firm IRRC and corporate governance specialist Manifest.

Members of the public and other stakeholders are then invited to comment on any of the answers and their views are sent directly to the companies.

Each comment affects the company's public rating, or 'Visitors' Verdict'.

The service went live last month. Its director and founder, Michael Solomon, said the site constitutes a learning process that he hopes will benefit companies, stakeholders and those interested in the behaviour of business.

"We are based on the idea that the greater a company's understanding of its social and environmental impacts, the better its business returns will be," he said.

Companies that have subscribed to the for-profit service range from the £4bn Hong Kong public transport company MTR Corporation to Adnams brewery, which resigned from Business in the Community in January because of what chairman Simon Loftus saw as its failure to challenge business members sufficiently on their CSR claims.

All the companies signed up to the scheme are at the most committed end of responsible and ethical business, although Solomon's long-term aim is to get mainstream corporations on board. He said: "They are doing it because they are willing to demonstrate their commitment to ethical business by answering on the NGOs' terms rather than telling it their own way via the CSR report. It is a hell of a lot to ask, even for the most ethical companies - they have to call up a lot of courage to do this."

Arthur Allen, managing director of promotional pro-duct company Listawood, said subscribing to the site was a logical extension of his company's commitment to flexible working and corporate transparency.

"We support the thinking behind this," said Allen. "Companies should be accountable as a whole for what they do; they have a big impact on society. The questions the site poses are quite demanding. Some of them have given us food for thought and an opportunity to engage with other people interested in these issues.

"It's early days. The site is not long launched, but we have already had half a dozen responses on particular questions that enable us to see the issues people are picking up on. This is another way we can distinguish ourselves from our competitors."

Allen added that anti-corporate critics could learn something too: "Sometimes criticisms of business can be naive and crude. I think the users of the site will be educated by what they see - some of the dilemmas of business are not that easy to manage."

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