According to a new report released yesterday firms should be subject to "stronger frameworks of law and regulation", multinationals should use their political influence to demand more stringent legislation, and businesses should redefine success to include social, environmental and human aspects of their operations alongside purely financial considerations.
The author of the report? Oxfam? The Fabian Society? Maybe even the International Worker?
Nope, it was Tomorrow's Global Company, a big business think tank, backed by some of the world's largest companies.
It has become something of a cliché for those in the green business movement to claim that things keep happening that would have been unthinkable even six months ago, but it truly is hard to recall a precedent for so many influential multinationals calling for more stringent regulations.
Entitled the Tomorrow's Global Company: Challenges and Choices, the report was developed over 18 months by a team drawn from a raft of businesses and NGOs, including Anglo American, Amnesty International, BP, Ford, Infosys, KPMG, McKinsey, Standard Chartered, SUEZ, and SustainAbility.
It concludes that: "While the market has proved the most powerful means of stimulating innovation and meeting immediate consumer needs for goods and services, there are major issues relating to long-term sustainability which it has left unresolved - such as global warming, the depletion of natural resources, persistent poverty and human rights violations. Progress in such areas depends on creating stronger frameworks for the market through international agreements and national regulation."
As such it argues that global companies should "use their power to help create such frameworks, rather than resisting them".
It may be nothing you haven't read hundreds of times before in left wing editorials, but it is worth repeating that this pro-red tape course of action is now being advocated by a cabal of the world's largest companies – many of whom have spent decades lobbying against the very legislation they are now calling for.
Sounding more like a Guardian leader writer than a titan of industry, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman of Anglo American, neatly summarised the report's findings, claiming: "Global businesses, operating in a market system, can be a tremendous force for good in the world - so long as the market is shaped and regulated in the right way. So it's up to us to work with governments, NGOs, academic experts and others to make sure we work within a system that delivers progress and helps to resolve the world's most difficult issues."
So why do these businesses apparently want an increase in their compliance burdens?
Well, as the report clearly explains: "This is not about philanthropy or companies being seen to be 'doing good'. These are actions that serve the long-term interests of any company".
Businesses such as those behind Tommorow's Global Company are increasingly realising that there a number of reasons why a stronger regulatory framework, particularly in the field of environmental legislation, will strengthen rather than hinder their commercial activities.
The first of these is the long term threat posed by climate change. It is understandable why the risks posed by global warming are often framed in humanitarian terms, but there is also the potential for huge economic damage.
Business leaders looking into their crystal ball understand that while the transition towards low carbon economies poses more opportunities than costs there will be far more costs than benefits associated with rising temperatures. No company wants to invest in India and see the economy collapse under pressure from drought or watch a repeat of the US dust bowl cripple the world's biggest market. Business success is only sustainable in the long term if the environment and climate are sustainable.
To mitigate this risk they also know that business led initiatives alone will not be sufficient. Too many companies will not back investments that deliver an environmental rather than a financial return and as such stricter regulations will be required to drive these investments.
However, if these concerns are remain too distant for businesses concerned with the quarterly figures and the cost burden compliance with new regulations would impose there is also a shorter term case for backing stricter legislation.
With environmental concerns being taken increasingly seriously by voters, the world's politicians are reacting and introducing more environmental legislation. However, with each country and even state or local governments opting for their own approach multinationals are faced with a horrendous patchwork of legal requirements. If there is one thing worse than an onerous regulatory burden it is an onerous regulatory burden that changes from country to country. In this light, lobbying for a coherent regulatory framework makes more sense than trying to oppose each and every one of the different regulations that are emerging.
Of course, Tomorrow's Global Company's recommendations do not enjoy universal support. Many businesses continue to oppose environmental legislation at every turn, while many others lobby against new regulations behind the scenes, delay their implementation and when the politicians finally force them through come out in favour of the new laws and proclaim that its goals fit with their CSR agenda.
However, the new report also highlights the extent to which a more accommodating approach to legislation is being incubated at some of the world's largest companies. It will interesting to track how widespread this new mentality is and whether it will could finally lead to a detente between business leaders and green lawmakers.
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