In the last decade, the business case for CSR (i.e. that attention to social issues needs to make sound business sense) has become something of a mantra for corporate responsibility advocates. Deviation from this script is rare. So it was refreshing to hear Ratan N. Tata, the leader of India's largest conglomerate, Tata Sons Ltd, mark his first public engagement in Canada by speaking eloquently last night of his commitment to a different approach to responsible business.
Speaking as the guest of honour at the inaugural event of the Thomas J. Bata Lecture Series in Responsible Capitalism , hosted by our own Schulich School of Business here in downtown Toronto, Tata make it clear that in his view, the developing world presented a different type of challenge for corporate responsibility. "Building schools and hospitals," he argued, "is something you have to do" in countries like India that lack basic government provisions. For corporations, he suggested, this meant that they have had to adopt a "more paternalistic" approach than that required in the developed world.
His own company, the Tata group, has become something of an icon in the responsible business world. Sure, they've had their run-ins with environmentalists, unions, and community groups over the years, most recently with the launch of the Tata Nano. But few could deny the contribution the company has made to social and economic development in India. And despite a rapid global expansion over the past two decades that Ratan Tata has been at the helm, the company has managed to combine its business success with an impressive commitment to business integrity and community service. Last night, as he reeled off a string of successful community engagement projects pioneered by the company, Tata claimed that, "with all of this, there's been no business gain for us. Yes, it creates goodwill that no advertising campaign will ever achieve, but it's not why we do it".
Tata's emphasis on the moral case for CSR perhaps makes sense when considered in the context of his particular company, which is 66% owned by philanthropic trusts. However, his comments were also echoed by his fellow business leaders on the responsible capitalism panel, Ed Clark the CEO of TD Bank and Jacques Lamarre, the former CEO of the global engineering firm SNC Lavalin. Clark, for instance, was keen to emphasise the importance of a values-based approach to responsibility. Citing his company's sponsorship of Toronto Pride, the annual gay and lesbian festival, Clark suggested the bank had lost business from customers upset about the advocacy of LGBT issues. But, he insisted, the bank was committed to diversity and "had to stick to its values".
Of course, all this talk of corporate responsibility beyond the business case could just be only so much hot air from corporate leaders keen to spin the image of capitalism away from its "greed is good" reputation. But in a world where, as Doug Miller, the chair of Globescan commented from the audience, the public had increasingly lost faith in capitalism, it was good to see that a new way of talking about "responsible capitalism" might at least be possible.