The Evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility: Development, Fair Trade, and Best Practices

By Nina Carduner

Plenary Panel, Redefining Development: From Silos to Collective Impact

• Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America
• Joe Whinney, Founder & CEO, Theo Chocolate
• Amir Dossal, Founder and Chairman, Global Partnerships Forum
• Moderator: Bill Clapp, Founder, Global Washington & Seattle International Foundation

Moderated by Bill Clapp of the Seattle International Foundation and Global Washington, the panel addressed recent trends in public-private partnerships, as well as some of the changes both sectors have had to make in order to create lasting social impact. One major trend has been the increase in direct foreign investment from the private sector. Twenty years ago, the primary funding for foreign economic development came from multilateral government agencies. Over the last decade, aid funding has been decreasing as world governments face significant domestic economic challenges. Meanwhile, large corporations and small businesses alike are beginning to invest and trade in the world’s poorest countries, which has exposed them to challenges and risks they may not have faced domestically. Foreign governments are challenging these companies to prove they are doing good work for development in those countries; this has lead to deep discussions on supply chains and their environmental and social impacts. Now, companies are generating new compliance standards and some have even adopted the human rights charter into existing company policy. Coca Cola has been a prime example of this type of socially-oriented evolution in the private sector, working to increase social responsibility while keeping costs down. Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam observed, “we are moving toward globalization 2.0.”

Amir Dossal, founder and chairman of the Global Partnerships Forum, expanded on this notion by adding that companies are not just asking, “how can we make profits?” but also, “how can we do good at the same time?” He cited MTV’s working in conjunction with Coca Cola to address HIV/AIDS in Africa: to raise awareness, education, and supply basic resources to combat the spread of infection. To Dossal, the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility has gradually evolved into corporate leadership in terms of individual social responsibility. As individuals realize the need for social responsibility, corporations in turn take on a larger share of best practices in development and philanthropy.

Offenheiser articulated a few effective methods that Oxfam America has found in creating successful public-private partnerships. These methods include building core competencies in the public sector to approach and understand the perspective of private sector companies, as well as leveraging changes in company policy to increase beneficial outcomes. Most effective has been the use of “quiet dialogues” to engage progressive minded companies, eager to incorporate sustainable social practices into their supply change, but not ready to go public with their efforts. These dialogues often result in new norms for company behavior and involvement from trade associations.

Joe Whinney of Theo Chocolate brought a private sector perspective to the panel. Consumer engagement and transparency are the keys to creating social benefit in the supply chain; Theo Chocolate’s business model centers on paying cocoa farmers fair prices for their product, which they believe produces a higher quality chocolate. Thanks to customer engagement and unprecedented transparency on all company policies, handbooks, practices, and pricing (which is all available online), Theo Chocolate has been able to create an educated consumer base that is willing to pay a higher price for higher quality.  Whinney emphasized the importance of these practices in an unconventional recommendation for the current USAID budget: “take half of the USAID budget and put it into consumer education in the global north so you can build an educated market that is willing to pay for a better product. At the end of the day, it’s consumer education that pulls future investment.”

As Dossal exclaimed, “When you do this work in silos, you have less opportunity to have impact. It’s not just about me, it’s about us working together. Once you do that, you start seeing solutions and impact through a different prism.”