They are all at it. Coffee chains pay over the odds for so-called Fair Trade beans, oil giants stress their green credentials and even tobacco firms insist they are giving something back. The era of corporate social responsibility is here.

Known as CSR for short, the practice is officially described as "voluntary actions that business can take, over and above compliance with minimum legal requirements, to address both its own competitive interests and the interests of wider society."

This can range from everything to cleaning up former factory sites to encouraging staff to take part in community work or ensuring overseas subcontractors treat their workers well.

It is not just magnanimity. Many argue that as well as doing good, CSR helps companies become more profitable by motivating staff, burnishing all-important corporate reputations and avoiding consumer boycotts or calls for government regulation.

Investors are increasingly likely to put their money in companies with a socially responsible image, some studies have indicated.

"We are going to do well by doing good," said Lee Scott, chief executive of Wal-Mart in late 2005 as he unveiled new energy conservation plans for the retail giant, which has faced criticism over some of its practices.

A series of high-profile cases in the 1990s - for example Nike's travails about alleged sweatshop conditions in foreign plants and Shell's bad publicity over activities in Nigeria - pushed CSR to world attention.

Yet it is by no means a new phenomenon.

Craig Smith, Senior Fellow in Marketing and Business Ethics at London Business School, points to the way some Victorian industrialists built model communities for workers.

In the mid-19th century, English textile magnate Sir Titus Salt built Saltaire for workers previously based in the appalling conditions of Bradford, a nearby industrial city.

As well as a desire to do good - Saltaire was based on "moral" principals such as abstinence from alcohol - Salt also recognized well-housed and cared for workers would be healthier and more productive, also less prone to unrest.

"Corporate social responsibility is nothing new, right up to the present day this is what companies have done. But what has changed is that it has never been more prominent in the corporate world," Smith says.

Modern methods vary, with some companies having CSR at their core, for example US retail chain Whole Foods and British-based The Body Shop. Certain corporations such as footwear maker Timberland and logistics multinational TNT are also famed for their activities.

Critics dismiss CSR as potentially the whim of 'do-gooding' executives who should concentrate on maximizing shareholder return rather than indulging in charitable works.

For CSR to work, It must be fully integrated into a company's work and not just treated as a "ghetto," Smith says.

In one recent development, some corporations have taken the plunge and co-operated closely with what some might consider their natural enemy - aid charities.

Industrial behemoth Unilever has is collaborating with Oxfam on research about how business affects poor people, something that prompted jitters on both sides, Smith said.

"Unilever was worried about what it was exposing itself to by collaborating with Oxfam - were they just going to trash everything Unilever does?" he said.

"And equally, Oxfam was concerned about the potential and actual criticism that came that it had sold out by working with the devil."

What do you think? What does your company do for the community?

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Name: Pierre Brunet
Location: Quebec, Canada

If we talk seriously about leadership and responsibility, any corporation that produces any product should be responsible for the return of any used or damaged products. No more garbage, no dumping whatsoever.

Name: Rahul Kumar
Location: Pune, India

Hi, i believe that the hunger for growth is choking human values and ethics.

It is high time to have a balance between profit and inner peace, a bridge between corporate goals and personal life. Otherwise, we are heading towards a world devoid of emotions where everything is mechanics rather than chemistry.

Name: Adam Marshall
Location: Toronto

It's nice you have Shell involved ;)

With what I hear they're doing in the River Niger Delta in Nigeria they are a big part of the problem, not the solution. Though they may have good intentions, it's a publicly traded company which must prioritize profits over anything else - shareholders demand it.

Shell = oil. There's a conflict of interest in there somewhere.

Name: Tim Adeyemo
Location: Nigeria

I'm a final year law student who intends to major in corporate governance. In my view about the relationship between a company and the community, I feel strongly that companies owe a lot to the communities in which they are situated and it's all about giving back to the society, because the government cannot do everything.

In other words, community development mostly should lie with the private sector (the company).

Name: Chris Macrae
Location: Washington DC, U.S.

It has been known since 2000 (Brookings Unseen Wealth research; intangibles crisis) that corporations as currently measured compound destruction of human sustainability and trust-flow. This is because global audits as currently processed are the perfect maths for cutting systemic purpose quarter by quarter. Boxing performance instead of empowering flow.

Mathematically, it is quite simple to value goodwill holistically and this would compound very different consequences. For example, if all major corporations in the global energy market integrated the missing maths we would not have reached that exponential state of decay of sustainability where Stern reports that 1% of national economies may need to be invested to save 20%

Name: Tonye Clinton Jaja
Location: Lagos, Nigeria

My organization renders legal aid and pro bono services for indigent members of the community, especially those victims of torture on death row. Members of the public are very much appreciative of our legal services.

Name: Hope O. Krukru
Location: U.K.

As a Nigerian, I know that the companies there are simply interested in profit making. The idea of corporate responsibility is just in the books. They only seem to act ethically in certain instances when it will profit their shareholders

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Name: Annebeth Riles Broad
Location: New Zealand

If everyone would share, there would be enough for all.

Name: Stinky
Location: Bournemouth, UK

Mega corps by nature do not do anything, other than to maximize profits.

If any of the major multi mega corps wished to show social responsibility, environmental responsibility, or simply were responsible, they would not continue to produce the many toxic elements that continue to contaminate the planet, and which are directly the cause of much sickness. They may issue statements of conformity but as a rule these are commissioned and paid for by themselves....

Name: Johnna Whalon
Location: Amarillo, Texas, U.S.

I am VERY disillusioned by the corruption of corporations, and their lack of accountability and responsibility. But at the same time I am VERY disappointed with our politicians and the corruption, and lack of accountibility or responsibility to the American People.

I don't trust the corporations or even my government any longer. I think the corruption is so much worse because I believe people are not getting less greedy, they are becoming more greedy.

Name: Siddha
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Corporate governance allows the chairman and directors to control and provide leadership, thus ensuring that the corporation remains a self-regulating and self-perpetuating centre for financial and human profit.

A company founded on ethical business conduct generates productivity and creates a loyal consumer base. To ensure effective monitoring and control of a company's business it is important to have a code of ethical conduct.

There should additionally be a corporate social responsibility statement to set out the company's commitment on quality and conduct to employees, suppliers, consumers and the community. These essential Instruments can improve staff performance and, promote greater consumer confidence.

Perhaps with corporate ethics and social responsibility ambition may replace greed as the force driving global enterprise.

Name: Funkakpo Fufeyin
Location: Port Harcourt, Nigeria

I am in total agreement that CSR is not new. For some multi-national companies in Nigeria, it has been part of their business model.

Most went into it to fill a vacuum created by insufficient government responsiveness to the development needs of the people. Therefore the budget for CSR activities and the human resources employed to execute CSR programs in most of the companies have been steadily on the rise.

However, because of the size of these companies, the presence and outreach through CSR has become so overwhelming that coupled with the non-visibility of governments in these areas, they have come to be seen as the governments.

What has happened to most of these companies is that they are targeted for punishment by communities for the failures of government and whatever they do through CSR is seen as inadequate for the people because the people expect that all the companies' CSR activities should effectively cover every single thing that they are entitled to from their governments.

What does this say about CSR? Simply that while your heart as a company aches to see people in poverty and you want to run out to help, sometimes the right thing to do in CSR is to take the time (and sometimes the pain of government punishment) to ensure that organs of government function properly and helping to ensure that government funds are channeled to the right causes.

Name: Brent
Location: Winnipeg, Canada

The concept of corporate responsibility is nothing new -- we know this because the pure ideology of capitalism is based on the idea of fair and equal opportunity.

For example, capitalist ideology has been against monopolies because early pioneers of this ideology understood that allowing them would not be responsible toward society at large, and toward viable competitors (also because monopolies are very much like dictatorships).

As part of my business studies nearly 20 years ago, business ethics was a small but mandatory part of our curriculum, and I can see today that such academic instruction didn't amount to a hill of beans.

Corporate scandal is as big now (if not bigger) than it has ever been, and it originates from society's insatiable hunger for wealth. When people work hard, they EXPECT to be rewarded for it, and corporations -- by their very nature -- are expected to maximize their shareholder wealth at all costs (it's how corporations survive).

And then there are corrupt executives who either steal directly from corporations, or mislead shareholders with falsified financial statements to justify exhorbitant bonuses.

I am VERY disillusioned by the corruption of corporations, and their lack of accountability and responsibility. I don't trust them, and I think the corruption is getting worse because I believe people are not getting less greedy... they are becoming MORE greedy.

Name: Arthur Holmes
Location: Kingston, Ontario, Canada

To this date, corporations have failed to realize that they must aid the government by being fair to their employees and their clients.

The significant increase in profits being made by banks and other corporations is the main reason why poverty is so high in North America and abroad.

A (price) cap must be placed on every product and once that cap is reached the consumers should be able to purchase that product at a significantly lower price.

For instance, before cable and satellite television came about, the only thing we needed was a television to watch any broadcast. Now we are being bombarded with bills for everything.

Why should we allow corporations to continue to profit from technology when we know that it has been paid for in full many times over now? The government must intervene and stop this abuse of earnings.

Name: Peter Egbule
Location: Lagos, Nigeria

I think that corporate organizations are beginning to realise that business is about people, within and without. This to me, means that corporate policies should not only address profit drives and internal human capacity development, but also the larger human environment.

This is important to ensure social harmony and co-operation which in turn results in profitable business. Any organization that has not begun taking CSR seriously is MAD (Mutually Agreed Destruction). My worry at present is that many organizations in Nigeria are yet to develop clear-cut CSR policies.

Name: A. Perla
Location: France

Americans are leaders in the notion of personal benevolence by means of a collective. For instance, clubs such as the Kiwanis, Lions or Rotary are continually asked to contribute to community improvement activities. For example, the Rotary has been a major contributor over more than a decade to an inoculation program, the object of which is to eradicate polio.

Most members of these clubs are businessmen or professionals and it is their way of assembling a greater number of participants in the activities.

Frankly, however, I would like to see more attention paid to the dismal lack of corporate ethics, as has been observed far too generally over the past decade.

Liberal markets are not dispensed from the practice of honorable behavior simply because the principal intent is to maximize profit. In fact, most ethical deficiency is observed in the distribution internally of those profits, unfairly and often inequitably.

The notion of shareholder status in relation to corporate ownership is not sufficiently developed. Improper distribution of profits to a comparatively select few is thievery of corporate value from other shareholders.

In consequence, I would like to see more effort made to influence the constituents of these clubs towards enhancing the sense and understanding of ethical corporate behavior.

Name: Ace
Location: Vienna, Austria

Corporations can help increase the wealth of the working classes without increasing inflation and in a way that would increase their profits.

When times are good and profits are up, employees want a share of the pie. They demand wage increases because they are the ones primarily responsible for the increased profits.

Increased wages are inflationary because they represent an expense that has to be paid even when times are bad. The wage increase has to be passed on to the consumer as higher prices.

Investors are entitled to a minimum return on their investments (if possible). A minimum return of 10% to 15% of their investments should be taken from profits first (if possible). The rest of the profits (if any) should be divided between investors and employees. The employees would be entitled to a bonus whenever profits exceed a pre-defined minimum level.

Bonuses are not inflationary because they are only paid if profits are high. Paying a bonus would decrease the pressure to raise wages and would help keep a lid on inflation.

Name: Sean Dwyer
Location: New York City

Gee whiz! Now that I've read your enlightening essay, I realize that multinational corporations are really good for people. The poor things are just misunderstood!

Name: Annebeth Riles Broad
Location: New Zealand

Our company teaches the difference between right and wrong to recidivist youth and their families.

This contributes to peaceful, compassionate order in our communities. We use the Ten Commandments as our guide in teaching the difference between right and wrong.

Name: Michael Hill
Location: Cape Town South Africa

Our company, New Homes for Africa, pre-fabricates cavity wall panels that enable quality structures to be erected speedily and cost effectively. Our policy is to limit profit only to that which can sustain the company as a viable entity.

We are developing housing units that are independent of external services and utilize only renewable resources -- rainwater, internal composting toilets, grey water reuse, photo voltaic/wind electricity and alternative cooking methods.

The aim is to eventually help reverse the urbanization pressure by allowing rural communities to thrive.

Name: Bob Kirkner
Location: North Carolina, U.S.

There is no such thing a a corporation doing anything for any U.S. community except close down divisions and export jobs out of the U.S. They have a free hand and it should be considered a criminal act.

Name: Kasia
Location: Warsaw, Poland

It seems that CSR is becoming of greater importance in Poland.

It appears to me that there is nothing wrong with the fact that it is a mutual business, lucrative for both sides. The more companies become willing to support charitable works the better. It is always easier when there are more of those helping.

Name: Patrick McCormick
Location: Seattle, Washington, U.S.

It's ironic that tonight I've explored the corporate responsibility page on Principal Voices in that today I voted on a number of issues and proposals as a shareholder in my employer.

I think the only reliable way to make sure that corporations act responsibly is to make the employees shareholders themselves.

It has been proven time and again the democratization of information and capital improve the quality of life for all, so why do we tolerate corporations as the mini-dictatorships of the West?

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