Corporate social responsibility and citizenship
in our time of fundamental change 

Interview by Harry Kunneman & Henk Manschot

Herman WijffelsDr. Herman H.F. Wijffels

'I explain the developments taking place in the world at the moment emphatically as a result of a jump in consciousness we are making'.

Dr. Herman H.F. Wijffels was chairman of the Social Economic Council (SER), of the Nature Monument Association and of the University of Tilburg Foundation Directorate. On July 1, 2003, he was appointed president of both the Council of Supervision of the Rijksmuseum and the Utrecht University Medical Centre. Wijffels is also co founder of the Encounter of Worldviews Foundation.

'You shouldn't just think of the here and now, but also of the there and then'.

Question: We would like to exchange ideas with you on the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the idea of corporate citizenship. This concept has a central role in the much-discussed report on corporate social responsibility, which was published under your chairmanship by the Social Economics Council two years ago.

HW: It is almost superfluous to say that I think that phenomenon is of great importance for business to function properly. In my opinion, the surge of CSR is not a phenomenon that stands alone, but is connected to a much broader development. I explain the developments taking place in the world at the moment emphatically as a result of a jump in consciousness we are making.

We are currently confronted with the creation of a global awareness and as far as I know this has never occurred to this extent before. At the beginning of evolution, we started out as unconscious matter. And throughout evolution there have been moments when we made forward strides in terms of awareness. I believe this is now happening again in a certain form, in the sense that for the first time in history the way just about all people in the world experience life is really interconnected. This is also due to the fact that we now have the instruments to make this true.

It is always debatable whether this is the case because the instruments were created or whether the instruments arrived because we were ready for them. I think the latter is more the case than the former, but the two do interact. Those instruments are the information- communication technologies that make it possible to accommodate individual awareness at a much higher level than we ever experienced before in history. ICT enables us to accommodate individuality and at the same time be in contact, from that individuality, with global developments: for example, people in the most remote places in China, India, Indonesia, Africa and here in our country followed the war in Iraq day by day, hour by hour.

I think it is also interesting that during the war prior to this one, there was only one American broadcaster that could completely cover the war, while there are currently a couple of Arabic broadcasters that did this themselves and that were actually much more on top of the war. In brief, you notice that things have changed quite a bit over the past ten years. This is a very essential development, resulting in the fact that we tend to take the context of global awareness more into account in the way we perceive our own actions, and also the actions of others, and in how we judge these actions. This is what I see ever more frequently.

Question: Some people are of the opinion that globalisation is not only a form of progress, but is also associated with new exploitation and exclusion relations and with new global risks.

HW: From my point of view the main movement is that we have begun to think much more inclusively. Added to this is the fact that there are so many of us in this world in such great numbers: six billion people. Along with the degree to which we specifically affect system earth via our economic actions, this leads to developments that cannot be sustained, that are not durable.

Those two components combined lead us to look critically at the social actions of any person whosoever, and also of enterprises. We can no longer permit ourselves the goal-oriented approach based on the narrow-track industrial, Cartesian, Newtonian philosophy, for that threatens the quality of life, and eventually life itself. As far as I am concerned, that is the larger motive behind the origin of the interest in what we call and what is internationally known as corporate social responsibility [CSR]. From my standpoint this is the crux of the matter: it is both a reaction to what we did not do well enough in the past and an ambition for the future. Of course in a certain sense every new notion and movement also gives rise to its antithesis. That is how I interpret the reaction to globalisation, consisting of regionalisation, localisation and 'cocoon behaviour'.

People do want to be citizens of the world, but at the same time they say: 'Well, I cannot change the world all by myself, so let me just take a look at how it is in my neighbourhood. Let me just see if things are all in order around the corner and in the neighbourhood.' And this will be the area in which they will primarily be involved. However, I think this is certainly part of the same movement. If we were to do this everywhere in the world this way, things would look a lot better very quickly. Therefore I don't consider this as a negative component. It only becomes negative if there are groups in this network society, as Castel calls it, that truly drop out and become marginalised and are actually colonised to provide very low-value services for that developed network society. The question then arises: 'What about that social cohesion?' which by the way is part of that notion of corporate social responsibility.

This leads me to a different observation. To me, CSR is a fractal of the notion of Sustainable Development. By this I mean to say that here, at the beginning of the 21st century, partially led by the mistakes from the past and the change in consciousness we are going through, we are designing a new perspective of social development, which relates the different aspects of existence to one another in a much better way than was the case in the previous Cartesian era. After all, Descartes and Newton were of the opinion that the big problems should be tackled by subdividing them into partial problems, resulting in specialisation. While we have now come to the conclusion that this movement, which was also very decisive for science, has brought with it a great number of problems in addition to many good things and progress. And that the big task for the next period is: integration in connection with re-integration.

We are attempting to implement the notion of sustainable development at a global level, via Rio and Johannesburg, and we have also managed to enter it on the Lisbon agenda, at a European level. At the national level, that notion must be converted to the National Sustainable Development Strategy; at local levels this is a factor in the form of Agenda 21. This is the larger context within which this CSR development must be placed. Thus, it is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of an important current social movement.

More than a hundred years ago, when all large enterprises that we now have in this country were being created, we were in a similar situation. At that time it was said, based on the development of science and of industrial methods that had taken place up to that time: the large social-economic project of the 20th century consists of creating prosperity and sharing it in a good way ' which, by the way, targeted emancipation as an important goal, and emancipation is nothing other than becoming aware. This project was successful; but that is not good enough for the 21st century. The development trajectory for the near future consists not only of economic and social aspects, but also of ecological ones. In that sense, this trajectory involves making our life project whole again.

Viewed in terms of the chaos theory, CSR is a fractal of the new order being created. In my opinion, this is also a transition from a mechanical order to an organic order. Based on the philosophy of the 17th century, we have tried to emancipate ourselves as human beings from nature and to control nature; thus the machine metaphor has been the metaphor of the past few centuries. In my opinion, the metaphors in the near future will be organic ones and will involve creating conditions in which differentiated harmony can develop.

Question: By saying this, you place CSR in a very broad progressive perspective. However, at a global level, there appear to be quite a few opposing forces in the game, that are more focused on maintaining their economic power positions with everything they can muster than on making a conscious step toward sustainability.

HW: I am one of those who think that we certainly need 'big stories', but no 'big plans'. That is a very essential difference. To me, big plans are deadly dangerous. You can devise a big plan from a mechanical view of life, but in an organic view, making quality context is the essence - and in that case, things are created in an organic manner. This is an essentially different way of looking at how you create things.
But first, let me say something about those opposing forces: the basic structure of our social order is currently anchored in the economic system, and you see that to a large extent in standards that are being used in the world of investment. The standards of the stock exchange say that profit per share in an enterprise must increase annually by 10%, at minimum. This is only possible if you force matters by exploiting nature or people and cause shortages, or by buying up other companies and merging. Such Wall Street standards exaggerate the standards, which essentially set requirements for enterprises that exceed what can be done via a regular organic development. In that way, you create monsters and damage: the Enrons and Aholds of this world. Therefore, there are forces at work in our economic-financial system that essentially are very much inclined to take the direction of here and now, while the notion of sustainability actually says: you can't just think of here and now, but also of there and later. That is the essence.

I believe it is a fact that the old polarity that used to exist between liberalism and communism has been replaced by a polarity within liberalism: these are the forces that I will, to be brief, call Wall Street the symbol of, the forces that very much want to continue economic growth at any cost, versus the forces that want to embed this in the perspective of sustainable development. My hope and expectation is that this surging wave of sustainable development will slowly become so strong that it will become the leading principle and the leading concept. But we have not progressed that far yet.

Question: Isn't there an enormous risk that companies superficially accept sustainability rhetoric in reaction to that pressure, but will continue, in broad outlines, to play the same economic game under the surface?

HW: As far as that goes I am a pragmatist. There are people who say: if you behave in an ethically correct way because it also results in economic advantage, you are on the wrong track. I am actually of the opinion that in most cases ethically correct behaviour and long-term economic advantage support one another. An enterprise is actually a social institute or organism of which the ultimate legitimacy is not vested in making a profit, but in the contribution made by that organism to the functioning of society. And profit is a measuring rod, as it were, that proves that you are doing so in a satisfactory manner.

Because if those purchasing your products are not prepared to pay a higher price than the cost of manufacturing that product or service, you must ask yourself if this is sufficiently appreciated. And this aspect does make profit an instrument or indicator to answer the question of how well you fulfil a social need. And, of course, profit is also a condition for continuity and necessary for being able to invest in innovation, because the need for social development also demands innovation. But in that order and not the other way round.

It was the other way around in the nineties and the means were made the ultimate goal. In my view, the movement for corporate social responsibility includes putting matters back into their proper sequence: the social effectiveness of an enterprise is the ultimate goal, and profit and economic efficiency are means to achieve that. When profit is forced by paying insufficient attention to longer-term aspects and to people, overburdening of the environment, and financial structures are called on to solve the problems, things are going wrong.

Question: May we conclude that you are critical of the power of the financial sector in this matter?

HW: I have always thought of the financial sector is a service-providing one: that it is there to be of service and to provide services to the actual economy. It seemed to be the exact opposite for some time: that the actual economy was operating for the benefit of the financial sector. Meanwhile, the priorities have been partially reversed again.

My point is that in the end the higher level of individual consciousness is the driving force behind this reversal. And you see this higher level of consciousness everywhere: the number of entrepreneurs who intend to shape their entrepreneurship in this way is increasing. There are people in the labour market who only want to work at a company that behaves properly. There are people who only invest their savings in enterprises that operate according to these kinds of principles, also thereby penetrating the capital market. And there are people on the consumer market who only wish to buy goods from enterprises whose operations are sustainable.

And these reinforce one another in a certain sense. Because, if consumers pay increasingly more attention to sustainability - and this is not happening nearly to the extent we would like, but the awareness is increasing - and if employees start looking at their boss in this way, investors will, without having their own ethical considerations yet, have an interest in investing in enterprises that behave according to these types of guidelines. And that is what we have called 'the turn of the reputation mechanism' in our report. That means that enterprises that distinguish themselves in a positive manner may be able to gain advantage with that in some markets. Public and the individual interest go together along that line. And should you lose that reputation, you may suffer great damage. That explains my pragmatic attitude: ethics and economic interest must reinforce each other if possible. That is the most powerful formula you can have.

Question: You are one of the initiators of Encounter of Worldviews, an organisation whose purpose is to promote the dialogue between religions and philosophies of life. What role to you assign to religions and philosophies of life with respect to the ethical aspects from the perspective of sustainability.

HW: Knowing that, no matter how you look at it, many people still have a deeply historically rooted philosophy of life, it is important to learn to understand each other on that point. And this is actually the basic idea that laid the foundation for creating Encounter of Worldviews. This means: if we indeed share this one world and if we intend to live together in a positive way within this single living system, it is important that we get to know one another better in terms of how we look at life and what type of practical conclusions we draw from that. After all, globalisation is mainly an economic project.

What we urgently need is an ethical dimension within this globalisation. Because, without balancing these economic forces by means of a system of values, it can run entirely off the track and lead to new imbalances and problems. There is need for a binding global ethic and the religions and philosophies of life potentially play a very important role in it.

Question: Is there a relationship between your ideas on the step in consciousness we must make and spiritual awareness?

HW: There is a direct relationship, as far as I am concerned, because by looking at the world as you do in that consciousness, you pose the most classic question to yourself: 'What am I doing on Earth?' I find that a very basic spiritual question, for you place yourself in the perspective of creation, some people will say, and others: evolution, or whatever. You are searching for the meaning of your presence here. If you consider it an accident, which is also quite possible, you nevertheless end up reasoning: now that I am here anyway, I had better make the best of it.

And then the question arises: 'What is the best then?' Whatever your approach to this question, you will always end up at: 'What is the meaning of my existence, of my sojourn on this terrestrial world?' And this question primarily comes from that increase in individual awareness. Values used to be handed to down you from a system in which everything had a meaning. But now, each person confronts this question him/herself. The enormous revival of interest in spirituality can be explained directly by that. Thus, it isn't about handing down spirituality any longer, but rather about a spirituality arising within us.

Question: Humanism also makes us search in that direction, of course, and this will make us end up exactly at the two dimensions you mention: the one is the idea that giving a meaning to things from inside us has increased considerably and the other notion is that we are all citizens of the world. In this context, it strikes us that you express yourself in a very humanistic manner, via the angle of natural evolution, via the theme of an increase in individual awareness and via the increase in responsibility.

HW: But don't we all live in a Christian-humanistic tradition?

Question:Does the classic religious idea of a purported meaning of the world still fit in your story?

HW: You can connect very well with that, I think, although in moderation. You sometimes hear people say: 'We now know that the world is an evolutionary system and that cancels the story of the creation.' I say that isn't so, for it always evokes the question: 'What was there before the Big Bang?' That shifts the question to the time before that, to the origin. And in that case you leave open the possibility that there is a destination. I have a very strong tendency myself to interpret life as a short period of time, in which you are somewhere between that origin and that destination. And that you can focus your life on a contribution to that perspective. As a consequence, this holds many more religious rather than strictly humanistic connotations.

Question: We would like to return now to the beginning of this conversation, and the idea of corporate citizenship. In your opinion, this not only involves initiatives by citizens, but also enterprises that forge new relationships between citizenry and economic success.

HW: I just described an enterprise as an organism. Such an organism is a member of society, albeit a different type of member than an individual citizen. However, it also must behave in a constructive, responsible manner within that society. This actually is the notion of corporate citizenship.

Question: We notice that you do not assign any special responsibility to politics and the legislative authorities.

HW: The principal task of these I actually see in a codifying sense. I do this for two reasons. The first is the classic position of the legislation to convert standards that are created in society into codified laws as soon as they have become valid to a certain general extent. Second: during the sixties and especially the seventies, politics in this country had very strong tendency to be the most important force of change in society. It is my observation that the government is not that force at the moment and is no longer the real initiator of innovation.

Question: Currently, many people look to the government for solutions when things go wrong and social problems must be solved. Don't you find this sensible?

HW: I think that is OK, but in that case rather on indication by social forces, as far as I am concerned. Under the effect of the communism - liberalism polarity, for a long time we here in the western world were in the situation of the authorities versus society. In my opinion, an essential mutation has been taking place in the past twenty, thirty years, which I call the social configuration. This social configuration is essentially a triangle, consisting of business (the market), the authorities, but also the very large group of social organisations.

The essential innovative force in our society is a result of the interaction between business and social organisations, much more so than of the interaction between politics and society. Of course, it must be the case that politics is the interpretation of social views and movements. In the second half of the past century, politics played a more important role, because it was then in a phase of making social life part of the state. My understanding of the phase we are entering now is that we will have a new round of socialisation. All kinds of responsibilities that were given to the state in a previous phase, will now be given to the citizens and their organisations, to a much greater extent. And this means that politics must be innovative in order to provide the breadth for this.

Question: That breadth does not seem to exist, or barely so, in many places.

HW - Yes, as long as we are still talking about our health care system, or about education. The way I see it, a school will soon have to find its primary legitimacy in the local area it is intended to serve. The Hague is then responsible for providing the facilities, financing and inspection on the basis of quality requirements. These are the types of mutations that are up for discussion, in my opinion. In that process, politics play a much less pronounced role. The phase we are entering now is one of activating citizenship. I call that the third phase of emancipation. If you analyse from the point of view of emancipation, the first half of the last century was the one of group emancipation: labourers, farmers, small businessmen, the little guy, the Catholics. The second phase of emancipation consisted of individualisation, freeing the citizens from the oppressive ties of the group. And now that we have acquired this freedom, the central issue is handling that freedom responsibly.

Question: If we now expand this perspective to the global level, how does the picture look to you?

HW: It looks like the Western world has a surplus of capital. From a global perspective, that capital can find an enormous use in the world, by investing it in the developing countries where the great masses of people live, where there is poverty, where people have to live on a dollar a day or less, and where more than 800 million people are hungry, and so forth. That is one of the great tasks for the near future. And if we do this well, we can have people in those places work for our retirement fund, providing jobs for them at the same time. In this manner, the world will come together. I am also involved in international initiatives from business that are trying to find that connection. These types of initiatives are still in the initial phase.

If you reflect on terrorism, what is the correct response to terrorism? It is clear that one must try to do away with it. But at the same time, work must be done to close the gap, both via encounter philosophy, and via the line of economic development. That fits in this approach in a logical way. To accomplish this, the technology must also be made available to enable them to skip some of the phases in technological development that we went through. They no longer need a fixed telephone network there. And probably also no large power plants. What can they do with solar cells and heat there? etc. If something is socially profitable, it is also financially profitable. However, the right conditions must be created in those countries: people must be protected, there must be reliable judges, property rights must be safeguarded, etc. That is the flip-side of the battle to maintain safety.

Question: That is a very different perspective than the one prevalent in the United States.

HW: There they have the idea that you can eradicate evil. That is a very childlike and also dangerous idea. It is impossible without self-reflection. You must look at the world as 'we' in connection with 'them'. If there is 'evil' elsewhere, we are involved in that too. I was once involved in structuring the European agricultural policy, a nice illustration of how that global awareness changes in forty, fifty years. In those days it was completely legal to set up an agricultural system that was entirely oriented towards our own interests. At a certain moment that ended up in a system that had very negative consequences for the Third World. After a lot of hemming and hawing, we are changing the system in such a way that those negative effects will disappear. Since we, as Europe, can no longer permit ourselves to behave as selfishly, within the context of the global community, as in the days we still found that very normal.



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