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July 20, 2000

Book Review: "Global Codes of Conduct"

A new resource on the growing number of codes for corporate behavior provides valuable insights on their history and their future.

SocialFunds.com -- Since the Sullivan Principles for employment practices in South Africa under Apartheid were first drafted in 1976, a variety of business codes of conduct have been introduced by corporations, shareholders, consumers, and other stakeholders. A new publication from the University of Notre Dame Press offers perspective on the development of these global codes and their integral role in the future of economic globalization.

"Global Codes of Conduct: An Idea Whose Time Has Come" is a collection of essays edited by Oliver Williams, Associate Professor of Management and Academic Director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business at the University of Notre Dame. This book provides a variety of viewpoints on codes of conduct, particularly useful to students of business ethics, but also to investors or other stakeholders in multinational corporations.

"A global code of conduct is a requirement of our new situation, with the shrinking borders of our world compressing peoples, cultures, and economies," writes Williams in the book's introduction. "Technology and the Internet have hastened the arrival of our global village, and the challenge to fashion a humane village is one that remains for our time."

The approach to "Global Codes" is decidedly academic, featuring a majority of authors that are scholarly leaders in the world of business ethics. Several essays delve into the cross-section of corporate behavior with more abstract reaches of erudition, such as the behavioral science of the "ambiguity-specificity paradox," or the Confusion ethics tradition of China.

But the subject of global corporate conduct could hardly be more concrete, and the strongest chapters are by those authors with practical experience in the day-to-day lessons of corporate conduct. Perhaps the most palpable of these is by Kevin Sweeney, a manager for Patagonia and member of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership, which adopted an industry standard code of conduct in response to consumer demand.

"We chose to get involved because of the holistic nature of many global problems, and many potential solutions," said Sweeney. "More and more, it is becoming clear to activists that the many progressive movements ongoing today are in fact one movement." Sweeney's description of Patagonia as a company already achieving many of the goals of global codes of conduct through their commitment to quality at all levels of production helps define what it means to be a corporate leader in this area.

A central role in "Global Codes" is played by the Caux Round Table Principles for Business, drafted by a coalition of senior business executives from the Japan, Europe, and North America to address international corporate conduct. Because of their broad base of support in the business community, the Caux Principles are purported to be more likely to be adopted by corporations in various countries.

A code of conduct drafted by the largest coalition of concerned shareholders, on the other hand, is relegated to a section in the book subordinately labeled "The point of view of church groups." The Global Principles for Global Responsibility, drafted by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) in collaboration with its counterparts in the UK and Canada, represent more than the point of view of church groups, but the interest of all stakeholders in social justice.

"This time, the starting point is not a particular sector of the business establishment or a specific company," said Ruth Rosenbaum, Chair of the Global Corporate Accountability Issue Group at ICCR. "Rather the whole direction of accountability is changed with the starting point moved from the corporation to the community, from the business world to humanity as a whole."

After a quarter century of incubation, the time has certainly come to put global codes of conduct to the ultimate test, proceeding with economic globalization under the guidelines of widely held ethical standards. "Global Codes of Conduct" goes a long way toward envisioning that final frontier and stimulating further debate on the integrity of corporate behavior.

"Global Codes of Conduct: An Idea Whose Time Has Come"
Edited by Oliver F. Williams, C.S.C. University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

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