Graham Baxter: Voluntary Coalitions – in Crisis or Just Growing Up?

By Graham Baxter, International Business Leaders Forum

Voluntary Coalitions – in Crisis or Just Growing Up?

Voluntary coalitions set up by business, government and civil society groups to address ethical challenges risk losing their potency when they become detached from the leadership agenda.

Once leadership of the agenda for tackling specific corporate responsibility challenges moves from the CEO’s office to the operational areas, there is a natural shift to focusing more on compliance – about the tactics needed to meet and stay within the prescribed limits. The strategic imperative of staying engaged with evolving social expectations on responsible business – to shape, set and drive new frontiers in responsible behaviour – starts to take a back seat. That is when commoditisation and complacency can set in.

Baroness Kinnock at the 10th anniversary of the 10th anniversary of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human rights

These considerations come at a time when there is some question about the viability of consensus-based, multilateral approaches to sustainability challenges.

The case for working in a multi-stakeholder group remains strong and of course requires operating units to be engaged. Fine HQ commitments butter no parsnips in the company’s operating centres. However, like any other organism, these groups need to evolve to stay ahead. There are coalitions that have been effective in delivering benefits to the security, safety and accountability to communities affected by company activities. They have made a huge difference to the lives and livelihoods of those people.

IBLF’s long-standing experience of the efficacy of multi-stakeholder approaches includes co-hosting the secretariat for the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights initiative. This tripartite, multi-stakeholder coalition marked its tenth anniversary this year amidst claims that despite the backing of the major oil, gas and mining companies, the UK, USA, Canadian and Norwegian Governments as well as International NGOs, the initiative is showing signs of mid-life crisis.

I do not accept that the work of the Voluntary Principles is done. I do believe, however, that it needs to go back on the agenda of the CEO and his or her executive team. They have to grab the ball back and run with it. Without that commitment and support, it runs the risk of being seen to be ineffective at least or ‘greenwash’ at worst.

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