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The EU Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility
Maastricht, 7-9 November 2004

speech by C.E.G. van Gennip, Minister for Foreign Trade, 9 November 2004

Competing for a sustainable future, the theme of this Conference, lies at the core of the objectives and strategy set by the EU in 2000 at Lisbon. The importance of achieving a balance between economic growth, social cohesion and sustainable development as a basis for competitiveness and higher productivity is eminent. Europe's economic, social and environmental goals will only be achieved if business, governments, employees and their representatives and civil society, recognise their role in a shared future and subsequently pull together. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) proves to be an effective channel for concerted action. On the basis of results obtained, its potential can even be realized more fully.

The conference provides a valuable opportunity to take stock of the development of CSR, at the halfway mark in the Lisbon process. Following meetings organised by Belgium, Denmark, and Italy, it is clear that CSR has become a firm feature of both the European and the global corporate landscape. The outcome of the European Multi-Stakeholder Forum on CSR, created on an initiative of the European Commission, will act as a milestone for present and future work in this area. The suggestion to convene an initial shared review in 2006 is welcomed as a good initiative.

The growing understanding that sustainable practices contribute to long-term business prospects for companies, is underscored. Responsible behaviour by companies and individuals, from Boardroom to shop floor, has a positive impact on business, for companies large and small. It is acknowledged that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly creative and active in the field and may face particular challenges in implementing CSR.
CSR contributes to competitiveness by enhancing the long-term sustainability of business. At the same time it fosters relationships between companies, trade unions and non governmental organisations as well as with those directly involved in the company, customers and the public in general. International instruments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the UN Global Compact and the ILO Tripartite Declaration act as key points of reference. Further work to increase the dissemination and application of these instruments is needed.

The Conference has been a success in deepening the business case by addressing the following subjects.

The business case:

  1. The practice of CSR enhances the possibility of raising both external and internal capital, fostering long term prospects for companies and becomes increasingly so as investors progressively adopt it as an investment criterion.

  2. CSR can increase the innovative drive of companies. CSR requires rethinking production methods, human resource and relations management and product development. This may be a great stimulus for the creative force of and within the company.

  3. The greening of public procurement is one of the key recommendations of "Facing the Challenge", the recent report from the High Level Group on the Lisbon strategy. Equally, other aspects of social responsible procurement are currently developed.

  4. As transparency is fundamental to understanding and improving sustainability of business practices and to the constructive involvement of those with an interest therein, further work on enhancing transparency and dialogue is of the essence. Amongst others, the guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) are a useful tool for annual sustainability reports.

  5. In conjunction with "enlightened self-interest", the importance of values for the business community was highlighted and recognized as the basis for CSR.

Delegates addressed a large number of issues, some of them for the first time at such an occasion. Among those issues, some of which will have to be defined more closely in future work, featured:

Implementation in different regions:

  1. CSR applies to all activities of a company, including cross-border investment and trade.

  2. Implementation of CSR is especially challenging in conflict prone zones, as well as in areas of weak governance. The development of policies on doing business in those zones requires further analysis and combined work by governments and the business sector.

  3. Further work on the complexity of supply chain management can help finding acceptable solutions to all stakeholders.

  4. Lessons learned from multi-stakeholder and business initiatives in specific sectors, such as in extractive industries, could be taken as a basis for the development of similar initiatives.

  5. Continuing work on enhanced CSR implementation in developing countries and support for the newly launched African multi-stakeholder forum on CSR and Latin American CSR network is required, by fostering innovative approaches in emerging markets.

  6. The call of the Secretary General of the United Nations (WSSD 2002) for support from the private sector in order to help achieving the Millennium Development Goals deserves concrete attention. Initiatives have been taken to face the challenge of the health of the work force particularly noting the growing impact of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. These initiatives should be reinforced.

Fostering competences, attitudes and skills:

  1. Inclusion of CSR practices and business ethics in the curriculum of schools, universities and business oriented institutions should be actively and urgently undertaken.

  2. Awareness raising capacity building and training within the company should address both the work force and management.

  3. The United Nations has acknowledged that Youth is a stakeholder. Enhanced involvement of youth groups can help them create their own future.

The Host of the Conference aims at taking the following action:

Progress on CSR should be addressed at the European Council's March 2005 meeting in the context of the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy. CSR as a cross-cutting issue should be addressed in a coherent manner in all relevant European Councils of Ministers. As the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade I aim at raising this issue regularly in the Council on Competitiveness of the European Union. I invite the European Commission to present to both Council and Parliament at the latest by summer 2005, a comprehensive set of concrete proposals on promotion of CSR practices both in Europe and globally.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - 12 november 2004