Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Accountability: why it’s never crystal clear

One of the best definitions of “corporate responsibility” I have come across is as follows:

“Corporate responsibility is the basis on which business renegotiates and aligns the boundaries of its accountability.” (Source).

Business’ negotiating partners are governments and civil society at large. Accountability for who is responsible for positive and negative outcomes is not crystal clear because this dialogue evolves as our world and societies do.

Take for example externalities associated with the use of the car: congestion, road accidents, environmental pollution, and infrastructure damage.

In 1933 there were 26 million motor vehicles registered in the USA. By 2005 there were 26 million Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV’s) alone, and a total of 136 million vehicles registered. In 1933 we had not even heard of things like acid rain and climate change, nor could we imagine the terrible impacts road accidents would come to have on our families and communities.

The dialogue about accountability for externalities among auto makers, civil society, and governments continues to evolve as externalities are revealed over time. Does tackling climate change mean cleaner fuels and engine technology (borne by the automaker) or regulation and carbon capture (borne by the government)? Do cutting road accidents mean improved vehicle safety (borne by the automaker) or better road rules and enforcement (borne by the government?). Civil society has stated their position: the current situation for both of these issues is unacceptable. But who is to blame?

In the end it all leads back to Achim Steiner’s discussion (see blog on 2 March) about who is at the table when standards are being set. The standards, whether on disclosure or behavior, must reflect the current state of the ongoing negotiations between company, governments and civil society about expectations for responsibility.

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