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Corporate social responsibility - a challenge to business

Recent years have seen a real surge in consumer awareness, with the economic downturn prompting a wide-ranging debate on the ethics of the current system. Perhaps frustrated by the lack of response from politicians, consumer activism has become an increasingly important force in civil society, putting pressure on businesses to reconsider their actions across a wide range of areas - including labour practices in developing countries and environmental issues. The rise of consumer activism is a relatively recent phenomenon and has forced firms to give more consideration to ethics - something that many argue was in relatively short supply in the years preceding the global financial crisis of 2008.

While it might have the ring of a buzzword to it, corporate social responsibility is an increasingly important consideration for many businesses. In previous years, consumers' input in the world of business had been largely limited to price signals. While there have been countless isolated boycotts over the years, they have had a relatively limited impact on changing the way the system itself operates. The increasing importance of big business has complicated matters somewhat over recent years, with competitors being bought out sometimes becoming part-owned by larger rivals.

The essence of corporate social responsibility is the desire to portray a positive public image. No business wants to be seen as a heartless, Dickensian enterprise but the events of the last few years have certainly prompted many people to ask somewhat uncomfortable questions. Needless to say, consumers must be vigilant to ensure that companies observe their obligations in relation to corporate social responsibility so that they don't amount to a public relations exercise, but there is evidence that the consumer activist lobby is becoming an increasingly important force for good in civil society.

Any entrepreneur is no doubt well aware of the importance of good PR, and businesses now have to be seen as if they are acting in the interests of society as a whole. The shareholder maximisation argument, so often held up as the cornerstone of British business, has itself come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Corporate social responsibility has been shown to be effective in a wide range of areas, one of the most prominent of which is the long-running Fairtrade scheme, which aims to ensure farmers and workers in developing countries are rewarded fairly for their efforts. There are now a range of Fairtrade products available in UK stores, and this is just one example of how consumers have promoted ethical business behaviour.


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