Make a pact to work together
Defining business responsibility in a sentence or two is difficult. However, its features may be described thus: Business must be responsible to a larger cross-section of stakeholders, which means that the idea that businesses exist for the satisfaction of their shareholders alone must be enlarged.
In the expanded definition of stakeholders, we first include the firm’s employees. There must be an element of being upfront with them, addressing their basic human needs and treating them in a fair, open and transparent manner. Second, we include customers, people with whom a business interacts. The responsibility of the firm to such partners should be transparent and ethical.
The third constituency is shareholders. At the bottom of it all lies the concept of profit, which we cannot eliminate. Profit maximization for shareholders is a very strong element, but in the pursuit of profit, the greater good for the society cannot be ignored. The management must try to convince shareholders that the company has a strong responsibility to give back to society and therefore must utilize some of its profits for the benefit of marginalized sections of society. At the same time, a company must respond to shareholders’ demands because many enlightened shareholders do ask a company what it is doing to give back to society.
Then there is the wider world of civil society activists and the general populace at large. They would expect that companies working with society should also have a conscious desire to be good corporate citizens.
The synergy between civil society and corporate India has to come about, otherwise all corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability efforts are doomed to fail. If we are to make CSR and sustainability a success, the collaboration between the two is vital.
With the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September, the United Nations (UN) has indicated that it is crucial to engage with the private sector. SDGs now reflect the concern of the UN that governments alone won’t make up the pie, and perhaps it is sending a strong signal to governments that they must involve the private sector in the development process too.
That concern was something that we in India started to reflect upon around 2010-11; and in 2013, when the CSR mandate came, we engaged directly with the private sector. India, therefore, precedes the UN in engaging by law and by rules with the private sector on corporate responsibility. Among the emerging economies, we are number one, and what we do sets the benchmark for many others.
Indian multinational corporations (MNCs) play a very important role in leading the way in good business practices. Typically, MNCs are seen across the world as avaricious, profit-seeking business entities. The outside world doesn’t trust the MNCs, precisely because of this trust deficit.
Contrast that with the Indian MNCs. While they are a relatively new phenomenon, one of the good things about them is that those that have become multinationals already have a very good ethos of corporate philanthropy, CSR and sustainability.
For example, Tata group companies are held in very high esteem. CSR, sustainability and responsibility picture that companies like Tata present is a very good advertisement for the Indian brand.
As more Indian companies go global, they need to follow this ethos because it a picture of India as a nation that they carry with them.
Bhaskar Chatterjee is the director general and chief executive of the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, a Delhi-based, government-affiliated think tank for corporate regulation and reform.