Hard Issues, Innovative Approaches: Improving NGO-Industry Dialogue on Corporate Responsibility and Accountability

Hard Issues, Innovative Approaches:
Improving NGO-Industry Dialogue on Corporate Responsibility and Accountability
November 9, 1999 Roundtable
The Littlefield Management Center,
Stanford University School of Business

The California Global Corporate Accountability Project and the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program at Stanford Law School are pleased to present the Roundtable, “Hard Issues, New Approaches: Strategies For Improving the NGO-Industry Dialogue on Corporate Accountability,” November 9, 1999, at the Littlefield Management Center, Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

The Roundtable brought together a number of experts from industry, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and academic institutions who are working to improve corporate accountability from environmental, human rights, labor, and community development perspectives. Roundtable participants discussed the key challenges corporations and communities face in defining the scope of corporate social responsibility, both in the U.S. and abroad, and in developing credible social accountability mechanisms. The Roundtable explored innovative approaches to promote social accountability, including changes in corporate governance, improvements in measuring, disclosing and verifying performance, local and state-level regulatory initiatives, and better community engagement strategies.

The aim of this Roundtable was to address an increasingly urgent need to provide arenas for constructive engagement between NGOs and business leaders. NGOs and community groups have targeted a wide range of social, human rights and environmental concerns, in both the domestic and international operations of U.S. business, which they are pressing business to address. Some companies have been the target of highly publicized domestic and international media or shareholder campaigns. Many companies have begun to embrace the concept of social accountability. Few, however, have developed robust governance, measurement, disclosure, or management strategies to implement it, raising concerns about credibility. In many cases, companies with a broad global reach are confused about which issues to embrace or are concerned that social accountability will reduce their competitiveness.

This Roundtable facilitated a constructive dialogue between NGOs and industry aimed at better clarifying both “what NGOs expect” of industry and what initiatives business “can and should” take. In keeping with the goals of the California Global Corporate Accountability Project, the meeting highlighted issues in the high tech and oil sectors, presenting lessons learned from those and other sectors such as the apparel industry. The findings of the Roundtable will be incorporated into a Public Policy Report for consideration by local and national policy makers, corporate leaders, and NGOs. The Report contains recommended policy and institutional reforms that can facilitate the development of positive corporate and NGO initiatives.

This Roundtable was the first of three planned NGO-Industry Roundtables sponsored by the CAP partners. The dialogue generated in these Roundtables will form an integral part of the research and policy analysis report that the CAP partners will use to inform legislators and other decision-makers in a later phase of the CAP project. The goal of this first Roundtable was to engage industry representatives, NGOs, academic experts, and government officials in provocative and constructive dialogue around the “big picture” issues of corporate responsibility and accountability. The Roundtable focused on exploring the “hard issues”–the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of “big leaps” in terms of initiatives on the part of both industry and legislators.

The dialogue explored issues of mutual concern to industry, government and NGOs and identified key problems. It was designed to build on existing expertise in order to expand discussion of the issues, incorporate a broad base of stakeholder interests, and stimulate discourse between industry and stakeholder groups. By incorporating multiple sectors, the workshop allowed for cross-fertilization and sharing of experiences across industry, NGO, academic, and government sectors. The goal of the series of Roundtables is to engage a variety of perspectives in forming innovative approaches and, eventually, viable solutions.

This document reports on the issues as they were framed by the organizing institutions and illuminated by the participants in the discussion during the Roundtable on November 9, 1999.

The Public Policy Report will be produced by the California Global Corporate Responsibility Project, a collaboration between the Natural Heritage Institute, Human Rights Advocates, and the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development. Project funders include the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Roundtable co-sponsor, the Environment and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program at Stanford Law School, seeks to foster a collaborative, as distinguished from adversarial, approach to real world problems. Since 1994, the Program has encouraged the formation and use of multi-stakeholder groups to confront environmental and natural resource problems with a collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach. Through this work, the Program has both facilitated and provided substantive research for action oriented dialogues among industry, government, and environmental organizations. For more information, please contact Sandy Buffett at the Nautilus Institute.