Killing people is wrong. That's one of the earliest principles
established by any civilised society. So how can a company be considered
socially responsible if its products - used as instructed - result in
loss of human life?
There are some obvious contenders in this category. Immediately the armaments and tobacco companies spring to mind. There are other industries where there are some tricky grey areas around the potential for lethal consequences if products are abused (alcohol, for instance). But let's not go into those grey areas, let's just stay in the land of black and white for just a moment.
Five years ago, there wasn't much discussion on such points. Corporate social responsibility was largely defined as what companies do to "put something back" and companies that killed tended not to be visible in that broader movement.
Since then, there is a growing agreement that corporate responsibility is rather more to do with how the company creates wealth rather than simply how it spends it. At the same time, tobacco and armaments companies have joined the fray, producing social and environmental reports and even winning awards for them.
This has provoked a certain degree of disquiet. The campaigners have dismissed any claims to responsibility on the part of such companies, drawing attention to the worst impacts of the use of their products. Likewise, some on the CSR movement have felt uncomfortable about their newly discovered allies, and would really wish they would go away and play their role of corporate villain with a little more conviction.
The tendency to damn the tobacco and arms firms is entirely understandable. It is often fueled by real outrage over the very real human consequences of these products. And yet such a position almost certainly creates unintended consequences.
The first question is whether the industries concerned can ever be legitimate. This is not a question that any individual company acting on its own can answer - it is in the gift of a broader society to establish that something is legitimate or not. If the people of the world believe that, for instance, tobacco is a product that simply should not be allowed, governments can act to simply ban it. There is no doubt, after all, that if tobacco had been discovered for the first time today it would never be allowed to go on sale if its full health consequences were revealed.
Governments seem rather disinclined across the world to actually ban tobacco. Presumably because the approximately 1bn people across the world who smoke would be rather cross at the prospect. So the official line has been in most places that this is an adult product, and that it was an area for legitimate informed choice.
That being the case, we then have an option on how that informed choice is met. We can have unscrupulous companies, very happy to sell as much as possible with little care to the consequences. Many would agree that such a description certainly fits some of the tobacco companies historically.
Alternatively, we could see a different type of company. One that seriously invests in research to develop reduced harm products. One that manages its environmental impact carefully, and treats the people in its supply chain with respect. One that supports on develops its own people, and which aims to improve society through that process of "giving something back".
That would surely be the definition of a socially responsible tobacco company. You might still not think that any existing company actually meets this definition. But a number of those companies are now stating that these are all things that address, or aim to address. If we agree that it is important how these companies operate, we should welcome the aim and then judge them by their actions.
The alternative is that we say that we don't care whether these companies ignore the harm caused by their product, despoil the environment and treat their suppliers and staff badly - because we think they are so far beyond the pale already.
Of course, that's all very well for tobacco. At least there's informed choice behind the consumption of their products (or could be). The armament is slightly different, of course. In that case, the use of the company's products will generally result in the loss of life of people who did not choose to enter a contractual relationship with the company!
Sadly we have not yet achieved the kind of world that can do without weapons. Writing as someone who would generally believe that for most crisis situations there are non-aggressive options which could be fully exploited, nevertheless a cursory glance at the history of humankind shows that states have often needed to defend themselves from aggression. This remains the case. So it is not the fact of weapons, but their potential use that is the issue.
This is an area fraught with problems. Companies are not in a position to decide the legitimacy of states to act in their own defence. Of course, where there are international sanctions in the face of a major breach of international law the position is pretty clear. Often, this is not so simple. Even a non-armaments company such as Caterpillar can get caught up in this - a target of protestors because its generally useful bulldozers were being used by the Israeli military to bulldoze Palestinian homes.
On the one hand, of course, innovation in the sector has led to a considerably different profile for major wars fought in the modern age. The recent Gulf war - whatever one thinks of the politics of the whole affair - was one where there was generally an expectation in the international community that the use of 'smart' weapons should lead to a minimum of civilian casualties. Compare this to the vast loss of military and civilian life in the first and second world wars. In principle, socially responsible production of weapons should mean that the nasty business of war, whilst never being desirable nor to be quickly entered into, can be operated according to more civilised rules of engagement.
I know this is tricky stuff. When I made this argument at a recent event in Vienna, the chair turned to me with polite incredulity and said "so you advocate killing people more nicely"! But the point is that, as with all these industries, there are choices to be made about how products are developed, to whom they are sold, and how they are ultimately used which means that we have an interest in seeing armaments companies working through what this means for how they run their business.
The challenge with all of these arguments, of course, is when market logic works against socially desirable outcomes. At the end of the day, the Chairman of a tobacco company may genuinely believe that it is about informed choice, and growing market share not the overall number of people smoking, but country-level managers will know that their remains one simple equation. More cigarettes sold = more profit. Likewise, the problems of arms companies selling to undesirable states or intermediaries is fed by the same market logic. To break that logic in the face of shareholder expectations would take the vision of a Mandela - and such people are frankly in short supply.
That is why the companies that kill will struggle to persuade the world that they can be trusted. The various stakeholders around the industry need to review how the logic of the market could serve socially desirable outcomes rather than the opposite. After all, we have seen damaging products, such as leaded petrol, phased out in some countries through the use of tax incentives, or through announced bans to follow in a given period of time, leading to real innovation in acceptable alternatives. It will take action this strong to really shape the market.
In the mean time, we at least need to encourage the view amongst the companies whose products kill that they need to strive to address these problems - and that means accepting the principle that they can be run as socially responsible companies.An Article from Business Respect, Issue Number 86, dated 18 Sep 2005