Manufacturing & Society: Defining Social Responsibility

Feb. 17, 2005
It's much more than good works and charities.

Philanthropy is not enough.

However well-intentioned or whatever the amount of the contribution, support of local good works and charities is not all there is to manufacturing's responsibility to society, to the people who are its employees and customers and the communities in which it does business.

"In the U.S., there's a tendency to think of corporate social responsibility as philanthropy and not thinking of it in terms of what it is fundamentally about, which are the obligations a firm has to society," observes N. Craig Smith, associate dean of the London Business School.

"Making money is certainly one of our obligations, but it needs to be done in a moral and ethical way," emphasizes Robert Spekman, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School in Charlottesville. Business has "obligations to ensure that people under its employ, either directly or indirectly, are able to earn a wage and that it be done not under threat of abuse, not using children [and] not using extended working hours," he states.

As both Smith's and Spekman's comments indicate, corporate social responsibility is being defined differently and more broadly than it used to be. By academics like Smith and Spekman. And, more important, by companies themselves.

For example, Eaton Corp.'s Code of Ethics, in addition to proscribing unethical or illegal trade practices, affirms the company's commitment to respecting human rights, something it requires of suppliers as well, and affirms the company's commitment to a culturally diverse workforce through fair employment practices.

Another example: "Businesses now operate in an environment in which long-standing societal concerns -- in areas from diversity to equal opportunity, the environment and workforce policies -- have been raised to the same level of public expectation as accounting practices and financial performance," stated Samuel J. Palmisano, IBM Corp.'s chairman, president and CEO, a couple of years ago in his introduction to the company's first consolidated corporate social responsibility report.

Another example: Energy company BP PLC states, "As a corporate citizen and a business that aims to deliver sustainable success, we believe BP must play a positive role in society: creating mutual benefit for others and ourselves." For BP, that includes human rights, arts and culture, and education.

But one of the best benchmarks for defining social responsibility in manufacturing is a remarkable one-page set of operating principles crafted 60 years ago by Robert Wood Johnson, then Johnson & Johnson's chairman of the board. Known as The Credo and still very much in use today, the document does speak of supporting good works and charities. But it speaks first of a responsibility to customers, including the necessity to "strive to reduce our costs in order to maintain reasonable prices." It speaks of a responsibility to employees, to respecting their dignity, recognizing their merit, assuring equal opportunity, compensating them fairly, providing them with a safe working environment and competent management whose actions are just and ethical, and helping them fulfill their family responsibilities. The Credo speaks of a responsibility to communities, to encouraging better health and education and to maintaining "in good order the property we are privileged to use, protecting the environment and natural resources."

The company's final responsibility is to its shareholders, who, The Credo states, "should realize a fair return."

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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