Panel: Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability and Human Rights

On April 14th the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, in conjunction with the Ved Nanda Center hosted a Symposium, Emerging Issues in International Law, as part of a celebration commemorating DJILP’s 40th Anniversary and honoring Professor Ved Nanda.  The first afternoon panel featured a mix of professors, business people and practitioners that spoke on issues surrounding notions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development.

The first panelist, Professor Edward Zeigler, is a Professor at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, and is a noted scholar on zoning and urban planning. His comments focused on sustainable development, specifically the development of regional transportation planning.  Professor Zeigler stressed that regional transportation systems must be developed in conjunction with higher density urban planning.  He pointed to regions in Europe and Shanghai, China as templates that U.S. cities should follow to strive to create communities where people can live, work and play.  With populations in urban areas and the number of private passenger cars ever increasing, this type of development is essential to curb the resulting environmental impacts and to avoid transportation crises.

DU Sturm College of Law

From there, gears shifted to CSR as, Bart Alexander, the Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at Molson Coors Brewing Company (Coors) discussed the company’s CSR practices and goals.  Mr. Alexander declared that Coors’ goal is to “raise the ceiling and the floor,” or in other words, raise the standard of best CSR practices.  He noted that there are many different indexes that measure CSR around the world, but recognized that a standard measuring tool does not exist.  Mr. Alexander suggested that the key to “raising the ceiling” is to figure out what makes business sense by learning what is important to stakeholders.  For example, Coors learned through internal surveys that employees place a high value on working for a socially responsible company and consider this a driving force in their employment decisions.  Additionally, Coors is concerned with environmental sustainability in communities where their manufacturers work and live.  Moving forward, corporations must be aware of their effect on all stakeholders, including those affected throughout a corporation’s line of production.

Professor John Cerone, a Professor of Law and Director of the Center for International Law and Policy at New England Law in Boston, focused on corporation’s legal responsibility to conform to CSR accepted standards.  Today corporations, generally, are not the bearers of rights or duties under international human rights law, in the technical sense, Professor Cerone stated.  States remain the principle subjects of international law.  While this does not preclude a State’s responsibility to prevent its corporations from committing human rights violations, the responsibility of a corporation as an individual in the international arena is elusive.

Mark Wielga, the Director of Nomogaia, a non-profit think tank focused on business and human rights, piggy-backed off Professor Cerone’s comments to focus on the reality and real-world implications of CSR.  He noted that multi-national corporations are a reality of our time and that, in fact, more power around the world is concentrated in corporate action than in government action.  Mr. Wielga recognized that CSR is difficult to define, as the basis for action or inaction is not based on the law, as discussed by Professor Cerone.  The CSR standard is one that corporations apply to themselves.  Mr. Wielga pondered however, whether CSR is truly voluntary.  When considering the possibility that social responsibility committees of corporate boards and shareholders would take action if a corporation acted outside of CSR accepted principles, it is likely in a corporation’s best interest to take CSR into account when business planning.

Throughout this panel one reigning theme shone through.  CSR is not an obligation.  Corporations are not forced, through any hard law, to abide by a hard and fast CSR standard.  Instruments, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles for Corporate Social Responsibility, merely lay out a limited enunciation for a corporate duty towards human rights.  Numerous indexes also exist that measure a corporation’s CSR.  However, submitting information to these organizations is purely voluntary.  This begs the question; should CSR be obligatory?  If corporations were to be held responsible for human rights violations in the same way that States are held responsible, how would applicable standards be implemented?  Is this a realistic goal or necessary goal given the current state of the world economy, corporate power and existing domestic law?  These are not questions that can be answered here, but regardless of the fact that CSR is not obligatory one thing is clear; corporations seem to be straying from the single-bottom-line model.  Corporations such as Nike and Wal Mart have experienced serious crises related to poor CSR practices, and have since changed the way they do business.  While these examples are certainly not the norm, CSR is increasingly at the forefront of corporation’s concerns, and is a principle that corporations must take into account if they hope to gain or keep any competitive edge.

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