Gulf Oil SpillIt’s been a big year for corporate responsibility. A huge oil spill, continued ructions in the financial sector, landmark decisions in the courts, and a new dawn for online companies around human rights issues are among the top CSR stories of 2010.

by Andrew Crane, George R. Gardiner Professor of Business Ethics, Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto and Dirk Matten,  Hewlett Packard Chair in Corporate Social Responsibility, Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto. You can follow their latest thoughts on the Crane and Matten blog.

It is never easy to pick the most important stories of the year. Some get huge coverage simply because they feature big brand companies. Some hardly even scratch the public consciousness despite having major implications. In other cases, it can be difficult to determine accurately what their long-run significance will be.

But here in the Crane and Matten control room, we’ve put our heads together to come up with what we regards as the top 10 corporate responsibility stories of the year. These are the events that we think will have the most lasting impact on the field. But it was a hard choice – narrowly missing the cut were the 10 year anniversary of the Global Compact, the FIFA World Cup corruption scandal, Unilever’s “Sustainable Living” plan, Apple’s labour violations, Wal-Mart’s latest announcements on sustainable agriculture, Jerome Kerviel’s massive fine, and American Apparel’s rollercoaster ride through 2010, among others.

But, hey, not everyone can be a “winner”. So if you think we’re worng, or if we’ve missed off your biggest story of the year, do let us know. And while you’re at it, take a moment to complete our poll on the right to help us find the top stories according to our readers.Here, though, is our top 10.

1. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Deepwater Horizon was one of the world’s largest ever oil spills, and understandably this story absolutely dominated 2010. Not only did it put a final nail in the coffin for BP’s once vaunted sustainability reputation, but it heralded a major rethink about the viability of deep sea drilling. BP didn’t cover itself in glory by failing to come up with a realistic remedy until far too late – and ended up picking up most of the tab, thereby putting paid to the usual assumption that pollution is simply an ‘externality’ of business. Really, this was the mother of all corporate responsibility crises in 2010.

2. Google’s battle for free speech

Google’s withdrawal from China at the beginning of the year was a landmark decision in the battle for free speech on the web. A real clash of titans, no other story this year illustrated better the clash between government and big business around human rights issues. But Google’s subsequent legal problems in Italy, where senior executives were convicted of privacy violations, demonstrated just how complicated this battle is going to be.

3. WikiLeaks publication of the embassy cables

Who knows where this one will end up, or just what its long term significance will be for corporate responsibility? But it’s hard to deny its significance as a major turning point in the fight for greater government transparency, and the contested role of the media and NGOs in bringing confidential information into the public realm. Heralded by some as the first great cyber war, the WikiLeaks maelstrom inevitably catapaulted online companies into the fray with predictably unpredictable results.

4. Citizens United decision

The only court case to make it into the Top 10,  but according to President Obama the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court in Citizen’s United vs Federal Election Committee “reversed a century of law” and “opened the floodgates” for corporations to play an ever greater role in US politics. According to the ruling, companies and other special interests can now spend as much as they like on influencing the outcome of elections. And why? Because despite their vast resources, companies should have rights to free speech on political matters the same as any other citizen. An historic ruling.

5. Toyota’s product safety recall

This case grabbed a lot of headlines in 2010, mostly because of the very scale of the recall and Toyota’s previously unblemished safety reputation. This was a huge embarrasment for the Japanese car maker and showed up serious problems in the firm’s management culture.

6. Bank bonuses

Bank bonuses stayed in the headlines during 2010. Despite continued economic problems, huge public bailouts in Greece and Ireland, persistent unemployment, and widespread austerity measures, some banks managed to award bigger bonuses in 2010 than ever before.  No surprise that the public stayed angry with a bonus culture apparently so far removed from their day-to-day problems. But European regulators finally seemed to get the message with new guidelines released at the end of the year that looked set to dramatically change the bonus landscape across the entire continent.

Butcher in Haiti with food vouchers used to stimulate trade. Photo by DFID

7. Corporate response to the Haiti earthquake

Few stories better illustrated the precarious role of business in international development than the corporate response to the Haiti earthquake back in January. The arrival of cruise ships full of vacationers represented for many the unacceptable face of corporate insensitivity and amoral consumerism. Yet, few denied that business had to be an essential ingredient in getting the stricken country back on its feet again.

8. Greenpeace campaign against Sinar Mas palm oil

Greenpeace won Ethical Corporation’s campaigner of the year in 2010 for its work in combating deforestation. This was exemplified in the NGO’s campaign against Indonesian palm oil producer Sinar Mas which saw them force Unilever, Nestle and others to cease buying from the company during the year. Greenpeace’s spoof ad on YouTube for the Nestle chocolate bar Kit Kat went viral demonstrating how campaigners were effectively harnessing social media for anti-corporate protest.

9. HP’s termination of CEO Mark Hurd

Hewlett Packard has had its ethical ups and downs over the years, but few expected the company to follow through quite so severely when CEO Mark Hurd was found to have made fraudulent expense claims to cover up a relationship with a female contractor. Rejecting Hurd’s offer to pay back the $20,000 he’d received for the claims, the highly regarded leader was ousted by the board for failing to live up to the company’s code of conduct. This was an impressive commitment to ethical rules by anyone’s standards. However, it angered many who thought the company was shooting itself in the foot. A tumbling stock price and Hurd’s instatement at competitior Oracle showed how much pain there could be in doing the right thing.

10. India’s 2G licence scandal

OK, so actually this happened in 2008, but it was only in the closing months of 2010 that the full extent of the 2G telecom spectrum licences scandal began to be revealed. In what some have called India’s biggest scandal since independence, Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja was forced to resign over allegations that he lost the Indian Government some $38 billion in revenues using an opaque permit system that was riven with corruption. Leaked tapes of secret phone calls with corporate lobbyists have poured oil on the fire. This could yet become India’s Enron moment.

So that’s our Top 10 for 2010. Doesn’t make for particularly edifying reading, but it hasn’t been all bad. In amongst the scandals and corruption there have been some genuine cases of ethical leadership in 2010, where companies like Google and HP have had to make some hard ethical choices that have cost them dear. No one said corporate responsibility was easy.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.


Andrew Crane and Dirk Matten are business school professors, both at the Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto, who teach, research and write about corporate responsibility issues. They’ve published several popular books on business ethics and CSR, and between them have written hundreds of journal articles, conference papers and other assorted scribblings in this area. You can follow their latest thoughts on the Crane and Matten blog.

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