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Corporate Accountability vs. Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility is a concept based on the principle of voluntariness, which is promoted primarily in the entrepreneurial sector. However, the rapid development of voluntary social responsibility very strikingly corresponds with the rise of the anti-globalization movement in the nineteen nineties and its call for the greater legal responsibility of corporations and the enforceability of rights. The demands of this movement are aptly described by a quote from the standpoint of non-governmental organizations to the UNO Commission for sustainable development from 1997: “The concept of corporate accountability refers to the legal obligation of a company to do the right thing. The aim of corporate accountability is to be sure a company’s products and operations are in the interests of society and not harmful.”

The concept of voluntary social responsibility was and is the private sector’s response to the call for responsible behaviour. Corporations offer voluntariness instead of legally enforceable behaviour. In other words, while the concept of corporate accountability advocates legislative changes, which would lead to a greater degree of legal responsibility and thus also to the protection of human rights and the resolution of the most burning environmental problems, the concept of CSR puts emphasis on voluntariness. Understandably, this by itself does not mean that both concepts are contradictory. In reality, the advocates of CSR behave and reason as if voluntariness implicitly excludes the possibility of increased legal responsibility of corporations. However, this kind of an assertion cannot stand up to closer scrutiny. That is why the concept of voluntary social responsibility is utilized as an argument against any kind of call for legislative changes that would lead to the responsible behaviour of corporations.

In practice, evidence is mounting that social responsibility without any kind of additional legal enactments does not attain the kind of results that would make it a given thing in discussions about legislative changes, which would lead to greater enforceability of rights regarding legal entities and also to the more effective protection of the environment. Without a legal framework of fulfilment, corporate social responsibility understandably suffers from many shortcomings such as transparency, the exploitation of CSR for the improvement of a good reputation without having a real foundation, the slow propagation of effective social responsibility tools in the entrepreneurial sphere, etc.

A combination of corporate accountability and social responsibility

Social responsibility based on voluntariness is not really and necessarily in contradiction to the concept of corporate accountability. On the contrary, both concepts could supplement each other well. Yet, integrating a legal framework for social responsibility is more than necessary, because social responsibility often suffers from a lack of transparency and is exploited too often. Introducing this could, understandably, do away with at least some changes in relative legislature. This could be based on a principle similar to Regulation (EC) No. 761/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council allowing voluntary participation by organizations in a Community eco-management and audit scheme (EMAS).

This means that if a corporation voluntarily obligated itself to behaviour that is above the scope of legal requirements, it would have to undertake to mandatorily prove that it is actually fulfilling its voluntary obligations.