Bush's Corporate Social Responsibility Greenwash

09/13/2005 08:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For more than five years, the Bush administration's philosophy to promoting corporate social responsibility can be summed up in the same three-word slogan that describes its other business initiatives: Companies Know Best. Any policy or program that moves companies to be more environmentally and social responsible should be voluntary -- you know, that whole less-government-is-better thing. The administration has buttressed this hands-off philosophy with a hodge-podge of programs aimed at market-based approaches to encouraging, but rarely requiring, companies to address their environmental and social impacts.

Suffice to say, it's not doing much to change business.

That's a conclusion of a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The report identified 12 U.S. agencies with more than 50 programs, policies, and activities "that generally fall into four key government roles of endorsing, facilitating, partnering, and mandating company CSR [corporate social responsibility] activities." CSR covers a broad range of potential social concerns, including business ethics, community development, labor, environment, and human rights.

Said GAO:

The GAO found that although there is no broad federal CSR mandate, the US Government has over 50 federal programs, policies, and activities to promote CSR. These programs lack coherence, clearly articulated principles, long term funding and concerted action. Many of the individuals interviewed by the GAO suggested that US Government could play a useful role in helping US firms to act responsibly everywhere they operate, and ensuring that they do so.

The U.S. government endorses CSR by providing awards to companies, such as the Department of State's Award for Corporate Excellence and discussing CSR in public speeches. Think of it as a "Talking the Talk" award -- something for which many big companies would qualify these days. Few programs actually requiring walking that talk, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which requires companies to meet criteria consistent with CSR to obtain their services.

This isn't simply a matter of the feds helping U.S. companies to a better job of "doing well by doing good." Globalization has increased the breadth and extent of U.S. corporations' operations in foreign markets, through both increased investment and trade. These globalization trends have led to increased pressure on U.S. multinational corporations to adopt more CSR-related activities in their global operations, particularly in developing countries. But only a relatively small handful of companies are true CSR leaders, and many big companies -- Walmart is one notable example -- slither by with few comprehensive or consistent CSR policies in sourcing their products from around the world. The extent that U.S. multinationals adopt CSR practices around the world continues to vary by industry, location, and by individual company pressures and priorities.

Much like its environmental policies, the Bush administration's CSR policies are something of a shell game: a weak policy here, a voluntary program there -- enough to point to when the critics come harping, but not enough to actually have an impact on how U.S. companies operate at home or abroad.

Among environmental and CSR experts and activists, such duplicity is called "greenwashing." To the rest of the world, it's yet another example of America, and its companies, as a rogue superpower.