blog article

CSR & reconciliation for a fairer society

17th May 2022

Author: Dr. Brad Long

Dr Brad Long imageCorporate social responsibility (CSR) is subject to critique on several flanks. Beyond the discretionary nature of CSR activity, the more damning criticism is that it has not altered business as usual in any significant manner.

The economist Robert Reich recently called CSR a "sham" because the economic system still puts profits ahead of people and the planet, and corporations are still inflicting various harms while enjoying record profits and CEO compensation. But CSR still has the promise for reshaping how we understand the purpose of business in society. To that end, the notion of stakeholder capitalism has been gaining traction and a global CSR infrastructure has been constructed to institutionalise the importance of being responsible for the social impacts of firm activity.

Not all stakeholders are the same, however. In the context of the resource extraction, for example, the commodification of the Earth’s resources for commercial purposes can cause uniquely harmful impacts on Indigenous communities who have a closer relationship with the land, whose physical, cultural, and spiritual well-being is derived from the land. The Earth provides and connects us both to all other species but temporally to our ancestors and future generations.

The harms caused by extractive industries are even more problematic in the Canadian context where our colonial history has led to the erasure of the language, traditions, and identities of Indigenous peoples. Businesses have a role to play in current efforts to reconcile with this history and rebuild relationships of mutual respect. Part of reconciliation then is to connect to Indigenous ways of knowing about how to be stewards of the land for many centuries, to restore access to lands that have been removed, to share decision making power with regard to how the lands are used, and to recognise generally the importance of land to the overall wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.

In the context of CSR, expressions of stakeholder engagement need to be strengthened. Corporations still get to decide the stakeholders with whom they wish to engage, what engagement looks like, and what they ultimately may decide to do after having consulted with any particular stakeholder depending on how well the stakeholders’ interests align with the priorities of the business.

More concrete action is possible. For starters, businesses can educate their employees on the history and experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada, on specific diversity and inclusion initiatives, anti-racism work, and human rights education, and can learn about the historical treaties that cover the lands of interest to industry. Businesses can multiply their interface with Indigenous communities and invite Knowledge Keepers to share their knowledge and help develop cultural literacy about Indigenous values and perspectives. Businesses can diversify their decision-making bodies to give voice to Indigenous peoples in acts of genuine power sharing.

To take a step further, businesses can uphold the principle of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ that is contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples to enable communities to be self-determining with regard to resource extraction projects that occur on lands that they have historically stewarded.

While not exhaustive, collectively these measures represent more meaningful, authentic and enduring methods of engagement. They stretch the boundaries of existent CSR frameworks through the inclusion of Indigenous spiritual and other cultural values as a step toward reconciliation, toward a fairer society, and toward a more sustainable future.

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