Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR)

For years I have wondered why progressive businesses do not have their own voice in Washington. The voice of business in the nation’s capital is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other broad-gauged trade associations with narrow track, knee jerk reactions.

In more than a few communications with companies that believe in effective health and safety standards, consumer and environmental programs and a broader horizon of corporate accountability to future generations, I have urged them to form their own association. Well, on June 10, 1992, at a well-attended news conference in Washington, D.C., Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR) was announced. Composed of companies led by people with an existing track record of enlightened self-interest, such as Stride Rite (shoes), Ben and Jerry’s, and Esprit, this new group will hit the ground running.

Stride Rite’s Arnold Hiatt started the news conference with his usual, direct, no-nonsense approach: “The true interest in business is not special tax breaks. You can’t run a healthy company in an unhealthy society for long. The Quayle Council on Competitiveness is anti-competitive because it focuses on quick fixes and short-term profits. The Council is engaged in restraint of trade by curtailing the growth of the fastest growing industry in America–the environmental control industry.

If only Quayle knew as much about business as he does about golf.”

Hiatt is no struggling entrepreneur listening to New Age music. He did what most observers would have thought impossible by taking a moribund New England shoe factory and transforming it into an industry leader grossing over $600 million a year through the efforts of a well-motivated workforce. To make his point to the mercantile skeptics that doing good leads to doing well, Hiatt quietly said that any investor who bought $10,000 worth of Stride Rite’s shares in 1986 would find them worth $120,000 in 1992!

Other charter members of BSR include The Body Shop, Working Assets, the Calvert Group, Rodale Press and Lotus Development. Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, spoke of “business alienating humanity. We will create a new language for business. You run your company the way you run your life.”

Roddick’s has a veritable blizzard of civic projects that its employees work on throughout the year. One project is preserving the tropical rain forest and buying renewable harvest products from native Brazilian tribes to show that many spice trees are much more valuable standing tall than being clear cut into stumps and eroded soils. Body Shop has built a wind energy farm to supply electricity. Their stores are full of materials espousing environmental causes, helping orphan children in Romania and working toward a sustainable economy.

BSR has a large menu of future activities that spell advocacy for pro-consumer, pro-worker and pro-environmental objectives. They will probably become a hair shirt to the myopic and avaricious trade associations that have dominated Washington so long. BSR will expand its numbers with training sessions, promotions of successful models and a “handbook on how to be a socially responsible company.”

The new group will not avoid controversy. BSR’s Executive Director, Michael Levett, told reporters, “The Quayle Council claims what it’s doing is good for business, but we are business and we’re saying it’s not.” “In fact,” adds Levett, “America’s long-term competitive position in the global marketplace–indeed, our ability to maintain a viable commercial environment at all–demands that we factor in the social and environmental costs of doing business.” Ignoring these costs, he said, merely shifts them onto the public and our children.

Readers who wish more information about BSR can write to Michael Levett, BSR, Suite 750, 1850 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.

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