The second Principal Voices roundtable of 2006 took place in London on September 6, discussing the collaborative corporation and corporate social responsibility.
Can -- or should -- a multinational corporation have values? Who is responsible for these? And can other organizations, not to mention the consumer, step in when the free market is failing people?
These questions, among the most pressing issues facing business today, were addressed by a top-level panel in London for the latest in the Principal Voices series of roundtable events.
It took place inside the highly appropriate location of the Design Museum in London. Apart from celebrating the best in modern-day design and production, the museum is based in a former banana warehouse by the River Thames in the city's Docklands district, the heart of Britain's global trade until the mid-20th century.
The four-strong panel, representing big and small corporations, non-profit business and social justice advocacy, explained their own take on the collaborative corporation before taking questions from an equally illustrious invited audience.
Tackling one of the primary issues, Richard Reed, CEO of UK-based drinks company Innocent, which donates 10% of its profits to charity and aims to operate in a socially and environmentally conscious way, said the terminology could be misleading.
"We don't call it CSR, corporate social responsibility, I feel slightly uncomfortable with that as a phrase. We just try and do business in a way that we think business should be done. But first and foremost we are doing business," he said.
It was a constant struggle to live up to such self-imposed aims, Reed admitted, adding that outside nudges could be useful.
"We called ourselves Innocent for the very reason that if you put that name at the front of your bottle, it's kind of like a rallying call to journalists everywhere to try and prove that you're not," Reed explained.
"We want the pressure. We don't want to be let off the hook."
Malini Mehra, founder and director of the Center for Social Markets, based in Britain and India, which promotes issues of social justice and sustainable development, stressed that corporations must have values at their very core.
"If you have a leader of a company like Richard (Reed), they are only going to be able to transmit what the social, the cultural ethos, the vision of the company, should be, if they believe in it passionately," she said.
"They're not going to be able to do a better job if they have someone who is an ersatz CSR manager who then wheels out ten arguments making the business case for sustainability and making the business case for CSR.
"That is just cosmetic, and that will never actually transform the cultural values of the organization."
James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, began his contribution by also arguing that CSR cannot just be an afterthought or add-on for managers, nor a substitute for efficient, profit-driven operations.
"What CSR does is broaden and deepen the management challenge, it doesn't shift the management challenge," he said.
"You've still got to be extremely effective at the marketing, at the operations, generating the cashflow, and now you've got a huge new range of things that you've got to think about which is fundamentally about your legitimacy in society and whether society is, in a sense, going to tolerate you, and in another sense going to support you."
The fourth panelist, Victoria Hale, founder of non-profit pharmaceuticals company the Institute for OneWorld Health, explained that her sector was a good example of where non-traditional companies had to step in the correct the imbalances of the market.
Her own institute develops drugs to treat diseases more prevalent in poorer countries, often neglected by the pharmaceutical giants because of their limited profitability.
"The problem is that when you have great, profitable opportunities -- let's say blockbuster drugs -- that you can have in your portfolio, and then you have a drug for malaria, or diarrhea, cholera let's say. You could take one more drug into your portfolio this year. Which one are you going to choose?" Hale noted.
"It's because drugs to treat people in the West, to treat ourselves, bring back such a profit that it bumps out the other diseases, the other drugs."
Both she and Reed noted that organizations with clear values were likely too attract a better caliber of would-be employee, bringing real benefits.
Smith concurred with this, adding that the customer also had a big role to play.
"In a well-supplied markets, where the choice to the consumer is a very simple one, if sufficient consumers make a choice in favor of one company and against another because of their perception of the social mores of that company, then the impact can be very positive or devastating," he noted.