Businesses meet to discuss social responsibility

Associated Press

SEATTLE — Representatives from some of the largest multinational corporations in the world will gather this week in Seattle to discuss several issues confronting their business, including globalization, environmental policy and labor practices.

But this time the gathering isn’t expected to erupt into the tumult of the "Battle of Seattle," when thousands of protesters converged on the city to violently protest the World Trade Organization.

At the Business For Social Responsibility conference, Microsoft, Ford, Weyerhaeuser and Starbucks will be talking about how they can be better corporate citizens.

Among the topics to be addressed at the three-day conference: socially responsible downsizing, improving human rights in third-world countries and making corporate social responsibility strategies pay off on Wall Street.

Bob Dunn, Business For Social Responsibility’s chief executive officer, said the group’s goal is to "help people get their arms around social responsibility."

These are efforts that many companies didn’t think about much a decade ago, said Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chairman and the conference’s keynote speaker.

"The shift, I believe, is that the consumer has begun, over a period of a number of years, to perform an audit on what a company stands for in terms of its culture, its practices and the way it interacts with the people it serves," Schultz said.

He said Starbucks’ own philosophy has long been "a fragile balance" of turning healthy profits while also being socially conscious — a happy medium that Dunn said many who will attend the conference are also trying to find.

A nonprofit founded about 10 years ago by companies such as Patagonia, Ben &Jerry’s and Stonyfield Farms, Business For Social Responsibility has since grown considerably. At this year’s annual BSR conference, companies that are typically the target of social activists, such as Nike, Gap and Chevron, are scheduled to listen to speeches that address the agendas of their traditional foes.

But very few of those activists will be on hand for the conference — about 75 percent of the participants represent businesses. An $800 to $1,500 admission fee left some activists feeling excluded, but Dunn defended the pricing.

"We need to put some cap on participation in order to preserve some of the community we want to create," he said.

The company does invite some activists, he said, but aims to build a community of corporations talking among themselves.

"I guess I said I’m skeptically optimistic," said Alan Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch and an invited panelist.

Durning said it’s better to see large corporations talking about these issues than not, but he’s frustrated by the contradictions he sees in many of their stances.

For example, Ford Motor Co. company recently began publishing a self-critical annual report on how it can be more socially and environmentally conscious — but also still manufactures the largest, gas-guzzling SUV in the United States, the Excursion, which tips the scales at more than 6,000 pounds.

Others are much more critical. David Ortman, whose Northwest Corporate Accountability Project encourages investors to make companies they own stock in more socially responsible, calls such conferences an example of the "green curtain approach."

In that scenario, companies create social responsibility that looks like a lot of pretty green leaves, but fail to address the root of environmental and social problems.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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