Accountability is critical to social responsibility

by Keith Nunes
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The publication of corporate social responsibility reports has become an annual event for most companies. Most, if not all of the reports, detail the progress companies are making to improve products, the environment, the communities with which they operate and the standards to which they hold themselves and their suppliers. But left out of many C.S.R. reports is the issue of accountability. It is worth asking how companies are responding when internal and external parties do not meet a firm’s established code of culture and ethics.

Several major retailers are currently facing this issue. On Dec. 7, The Los Angeles Times began a four-part series of stories documenting the working conditions at several farms owned by fresh produce companies in Mexico (Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables). As of the writing of this column, three of the four stories have been published and they describe working conditions that are not acceptable based on a review of the many C.S.R. guidelines established by food and beverage companies, retailers and food service operators.

What the first three stories document is difficult to read, but worthwhile. It is a direct example of the role accountability must play in any C.S.R. program. Many of the companies that source fresh produce from the farms included in the series of articles have all expressed concern and vowed to investigate. But it is the next step that is the most critical: If the conditions described are found to be accurate, how will the suppliers be held accountable?

At its heart, corporate social responsibility is about continuous improvement and change. There are many positive examples of how these efforts have improved businesses and communities, but it must be understood that not all aspects of the concept are positive.

As with any industry, there are bad actors and they must be held accountable if they are found to violate the culture and ethics of a firm. A part of being responsible is holding oneself and others accountable. Without such standards, the C.S.R. concept becomes more of a marketing effort rather than a strategic endeavor.

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