Convenient Social Responsibility

There was an article in last week’s Economist that got me thinking about corporate social responsibility. If you’re curious about the article you can read it here, but the gist of it is HSBC are touting their amazing amounts of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in terms of anti-deforestation, while at the same time they are the bank to a couple of logging companies in Sarawak, Malaysia. Boo-hoo, I hear you say while laughing at my tree hugging sentiment. Quite. The reason this struck me more than other tales of woe from the hippies usually would do is twofold. One, I used to live in Sarawak and I remember it fondly, particularly the arduous trips in the jungle at the age of eleven and sleeping in a long house. I get nostalgic at the mere mention of it. It is not some far flung corner of the world so remote and wild that I can not relate to it. It encapsulates a major chunk of my childhood. It is the only place I have lived continuously for more than 5 years. And there are orangutans. The second reason is that I have banked with HSBC pretty much since I was 16.

How to reconcile this? I don’t believe on CSR; I think it is little more than a sham and a very large circle jerk. Oil companies may look at alternative fuels and spend many millions on research into them, but they aren’t going run to that well until the current one is dry. Similarly with car companies and their efforts with electric cars. Because let’s face it, the oil companies and car companies have their hands in each other’s pockets so it’s not surprising. There are other examples of this but I’m not going to make this a long list of hypocritical crimes. Corporate social responsibility is a public relations exercise more often than not.

It does seem like people actually get taken in by this though. Companies tend to be evil. The people that run them tend to be evil. People, as a rule, are evil. There are exceptions, obviously as with all things, but even those lauded for their piety and wonderfulness usually just have good PR. Don’t get me started on Gandhi or Mother Theresa.

CSR is simply cashing in on green money, and I don’t mean the dollar. If you can advertise your green credentials, or something to say that you don’t willinglyexploit workers, though you are happy to subcontract to companies that will; if you’re not going to highlight your efforts to spend lots of money on your PR budget in this day and age your are going to lose out. As much as the socially conscious are willing to only buy from companies that work under this remit, then companies will lie to chase those people. It’s the little exceptions and excuses and lies that help us sleep at night after all.

True Story.

Again, I’m not stating there are no socially responsible companies. But if you feel the need to highlight these credentials then you are probably not doing that much. The internet has brought us to an age where everything a companies does that involves external scrutiny, like HSBC and their belief in the Equator Principles (a set of environmental standards for project financiers), will be found out. A campaigning group found out about HSBC being naughty naughty because they are audited by a third party. It’s like HSBC are swinging their dicks in people’s faces and saying ‘Yeah, what?’. Audited by an external company and still have the stones to hand over financial services? That may not be giving them money directly, granted, but it is complicity nonetheless.

This didn’t make front page news (though, this is one of the many reasons I read The Economist, they tend to write about the little reported things as well as the big things). There generally isn’t much of an outcry and that’s a shame. For my part I probably won’t get another HSBC bank account. It’s funny in a way that banks can’t catch a break, not that they deserve one. They like to point out that they just give people what they want. Conveniently forgetting they can just say no and be done with it. And that is the point, they have shareholders and stakeholders and all this corporate social responsibly goes out the window when the money gets a little tight. Because why save a tree when you cut it down and make money on it several times over.

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2 Responses to “Convenient Social Responsibility”
  1. Ewan Harney says:

    Frustrating and depressing… but what can you do? Apart from, as you say, cease banking with the HSBC, which I’ll do (once I’ve paid my overdraft off). Unfortunately, most people with no connection to Sarawak will probably just shrug their shoulders and say “shit happens”.

    If you’d like to hear more stories of corruption in Sarawak (‘like’ in the loose sense of the word), there are some good articles at:

    http://www.sarawakreport.org/

    You just have to filter out the sensationalist style of reporting…

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