Some quotes about the book so far


The BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley writes:

” The pact between government and citizens, therefore, is being determined by far more obscure elements, drawing us back to 1762 when Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the phrase “The Social Contract.”This challenged the right of monarchies to rule and emphasized that power should be in the hands of that indefinable entity of the state, whose architecture would be decided by an equally indefinable force – the will of the people.

Each of the recent protests are different and respond to different issues,” says John Morrison, author of The Social License, which examines how organizations acquire and lose legitimacy. “But some clearly relate specifically to what might be called ‘political license,’ attempts by populations to renegotiate the social contract granted to specific governments – or at least to make such governments more accountable.” (Excerpt from YaleGlobal, 7 October 2014)

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart (former Chair of Shell and Anglo-American) writes:

“This book on the “Social License” reflects this wide experience and the development of his thinking. It is a valuable and balanced analysis of how the trust of society and legitimacy is gained or lost. As someone who has spent much time grappling with these very issues I found myself while reading this well written book repeatedly thinking “Ah yes, but …” only to find that Morrison himself has explored the “but” thoroughly on the next pages, with valuable insights..

“In the introduction Morrison says that the book is not intended to be the reflections of an academic nor intended to be a management guide. In spite of this, I found the analysis highly relevant and it is in fact a valuable guide for managers. He says “ the story I tell is aimed at shifting our collective thinking and to start asking some of what I see as the right questions”. He does indeed ask the right questions and begins to answer them in ways that would make a discussion over a pint of Morrison’s favourite Harvey’s beer, brewed in Lewes in memory of Thomas Paine, both enlightening and enjoyable.”  (Excerpt from review for Lawyers for Better Business)

Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) writes:

“Provocative and challenging The Social License makes a compelling case for why companies must look to increase their positive social impact as an integral part of their core business strategies.”

The leading commentator on ethical investment, Rory Sullivan, writes:

“Inevitably, when it becomes clear that the original vision will not be delivered, the search begins for the next big idea that, this time, will definitely reshape the relationship between companies and society. It is in this context of the constant search for the next big idea in corporate responsibility that John Morrison’s new book – The Social License: How to Keep Your Organization Legitimate – is so important. Rather than trying to develop a new concept, he simply takes the idea of the social licence to operate (a term widely used in the extractive industries) and asks what this might look like if it was analysed in terms of the “social contract” between business and society.” (Excerpt from review for Ethical Corporation)

Margot Wallstrom (now Foreign Minister of Sweden) writes (shortly before her appointment):

“My three words to describe John Morrison’s book: Timely ­– because what used to be acceptable behaviour by business a few decades ago is no longer the case today and because social license is much more than CSR; Targeted – because it reaches out not only to business but also governments and civil society; Trustworthy – because with his vast experience and knowledge John Morrison, convinces us both theoretically and practically. A book to be read, discussed, and used!”

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change writes:

“John Morrison has led significant initiatives on business and human rights over recent years.  Now his book takes some of that collective experience and orders it conceptually in a way that is accessible and makes an important point about the social licence of corporations to operate.”

John G. Ruggie, Professor of Human Rights and International Affairs, Harvard University; former United Nations Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, writes:

“In this provocative book, John Morrison takes us beyond CSR into the realm of ‘the social license’ and how it is earned, and then all the way to the social contract on which any sustainable societal order ultimately must rest. The intellectual journey is well worth the while.”

Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director, Greenpeace International, writes:

The Social License is fundamentally about accountability to people and not just powerful interests. John Morrison’s book reminds all organizations – governments, business and civil society – to focus on the legitimacy of their own actions.”

Ed Potter, Director, Global Workplace Rights, The Coca-Cola Company, writes:

“John Morrison has written a thought provoking, path-finding book that should be essential reading for any corporate executive seeking to achieve a growing, sustainable business.  It sets out a textured, multi-layered, challenging framework that is foundational to maintaining a social license in a social media world of increasing and rising expectations.”

The OECD’s Roel Nieuwenkamp writes:

“Although Morrison questions how CSR is conceptualized today, this book is a must read for CSR practitioners.  The Social License connects age old philosophical concepts, like the Social Contract, with modern case studies of BP, Newmont, Shell, Dow Chemicals and the Body Shop.”   (Excerpt from review at Friends of the OECD Guidelines)

Paul Hohnen writes:

“Anyone who has had the privilege of hearing John Morrison speak, or read his other writings, will know broadly what to expect. This book is a deeply thoughtful and informative analysis of evolving social, business and regulatory expectations and trends, drawing on the author’s score of years experience at the front line of the business and human rights movement.”  (Excerpt from review at The Smarter Business Blog)

And John Morrison writes:

“Social licence can never be self-awarded, it requires that an activity enjoys sufficient trust and legitimacy, and has the consent of those affected. Business cannot determine how much prevention or mitigation it should engage in to meet environmental or social risk – stakeholders and rights-holders have to be involved for thresholds of due diligence to be legitimate (sometimes even if these are clearly determined in law).”  (Excerpt from The Guardian website)



London book launch report – 29 Sept 2014


Thanks to the 110 of you who attended the London book launch on 29 September 2014 kindly hosted by Amnesty International UK on behalf of the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Palgrave MacMillan (the book publisher). The panel (pictured above) consisted – from left – of the chair Humphrey Hawksley (BBC), Ramanie Kunanayagam (BG Group), Peter Frankental (Amnesty International UK) and me (the author).

It was a vibrant discussion ranging from Shell Nigeria, BP Gulf of Mexico to supply chains in the apparel sector. All panelists recognised that the ‘social licence’ concept was an emerging one – but there was critical analysis of interpretations devoid of core concepts such as legitimacy and consent. Panellists challenged existing approaches to social responsibility in different ways. Arguably, there was consensus that the role of the private sector in relation to social impacts is an inevitable one – from the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals to the Internet Governance debate. What is needed are more robust conversations about the how non-state actors such as business impact on the pre-existing social contract in ways to do not undermine the state and ensure strong accountability.

We were particularly honoured to have Maria Saro-Wiwa (the widow of Ken Saro-Wiwa – the Nigerian activist murdered by the state in 1995) with us for the event. We must all work to ensure that  Ken’s legacy is not forgotten.


Case Study Two: Scotland and the independence vote


Governments too can lose social license – just look at the Scottish referendum

This Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence is historic. Whichever way it goes, things will never be the same again. It is only now – as the opinion polls have tightened – that the English establishment seems to be realizing this. Alex Salmond’s (the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party) offer to pay the bus fares for each of the major UK parties to come to Scotland to fight to retain the union speaks to reality that all three are now a liability for their own cause. If there ever was a deal to be done on greater devolution, it should have been two years ago not a few days before the vote. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, then David Cameron will go down in history as the British Prime Minister who presided over the destruction of Britain – largely because “devolution max” was not an option allowed on the ballot paper. He bet that when given the stark choice of “in or out”, the Scots would retreat from the brink. However on Thursday Scotland might just call his bluff, and if they don’t this time the vote will be close enough to make another independence vote in the next ten years likely.

One of the most articulate commentaries I have read over recent days is from my friend and colleague the author Salil Tripathi, whose recent article in the Indian press gives as close to an objective assessment as is possible. He concludes:

 “Whether what unites them—a shared history, intertwined lives, and common imprint on the world—is strong enough to overcome the atavistic longing of an imagined community, which in Benedict Anderson’s memorable phrase all nation states are, will be known on Thursday night.”

You might wonder why I have chosen this as the second case study on a website focusing on the “social license” – we are not talking about a business activity of any kind? Well, I argue in my book that governments too need social license for their activities and that the three main UK party leaders have in many ways lost their social license in Scotland. This is most true of David Cameron and the Conservative Party which is almost unrepresented in the country, but during the past two years has become increasingly true for the Liberal Democrats and Labour as well. This is partly due to “identikit” nature of the three party leaders; Cameron, Clegg and Miliband can all sound similar to the Scottish ear (naturally more communitarian and Nordic in outlook). The issues that most Scots care about – healthcare and education – have increasingly moved to market-based systems in England under all three parties. This whilst the English nationalist – Nigel Farage (working under the strangely misnamed “UK” Independence Party) beats the drum of Mordor in the background and pushes all three party leaders to make crazy statements on issues such as immigration and Europe that none of them believe in. The “Russian doll” perfect storm of Scotland leaving the UK, and then the what remains of the UK voting to leave the European Union in the next five years, destroys two identities at once for those of us who have thought of ourselves as being British and European above that much less inclusive and progressive category of Englishness. This is no small thing.

On the positive side, the independence question has done wonders for the social contract within Scotland. If Jean-Jacques Rousseau was to be transported 250 years to be walking the streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh this week he would be delighted – reminding him perhaps of his ideal republic where decisions where made not be elites but through the participation of citizens. Predictions are that the turnout will be above 80% – unparalleled in nearly every democracy where voting is an issue of choice. Scotland will be an interesting and exciting place to think about social license and social contract for years to come.

So intellectually, a Scottish vote for independence would be very interesting and if I were living north of the border I would be very tempted to vote ‘Yes’. However as a hybrid, half Scottish – half English, and with no right to vote –  I can’t help hoping that my British identity will not be destroyed in three days time. I remember all the former Yugoslavs I worked with in the 1990s who had Serbian, Croat or Bosnian identity forced upon them through the events of those years. The Scottish vote is a peaceful act of self-determination, but don’t let the absence of bullets obscure the fact that we are moving into unchartered waters.

Case Study One: BP and the Gulf of Mexico

Case Study One: BP and the Gulf of Mexico


The ruling by Judge Carl Barbier of the US District Court in New Orleans at the start of September 2014 poses a possible $18 billion in civil liabilities – a large part of the total costs for BP arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The ruling asserts that BP acted with gross negligence and willful misconduct. BP is appealing and the legal process will undoubtedly take years to resolve itself.

My book on the ‘social license’ starts with the BP case study, in fact the first chapter is named “Macondo” – the name given by BP to its oil field in the Gulf of Mexico. I do not get into the legal arguments of the case directly as my book is about social license and not legal license, but the issues of due diligence: knowledge, preventing and mitigating risk and negative impacts, and levels of disclosure are highly relevant to the way I think businesses should manage their social license. I contend that better management of such things, whilst not necessarily preventing such disasters in all cases, can have a profound effect on the future activities of a company should they occur.

For those familiar with existing definitions of “the social license to operate”, the Macondo example might seem a strange one for me to have picked to start the book. There was no community directly adjacent to the deep-water drilling facility (other than those on the rig itself), it is often reported as an environmental disaster more than a social one and clearly it has a strong legal dimension. But I wanted to show the reader, from the start, that the ‘social license’ can have wider utility than just mining operations in Australia, Canada or Latin America, and that those implications can relate even to high-profile cases such as Deepwater Horizon.

One way that organizations, and in particular business, can manage the social license of their activities, is through multi-stakeholder approaches where businesses, governments and civil society (and sometimes trade unions) sit together to find pragmatic responses to complex problems. Very often this can include agreed strategies of prevention and risk mitigation. Acquiring knowledge of business risks and potential negative social impacts is now a requirement of business if it wishes to respect human rights under UN and OECD norms. The irony is that on some other issues before the 2010 disaster, BP had been rather good at understanding the value of multi-stakeholder approaches in minimizing social harms. BP was one of the founding companies of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which aims at controlling the behavior of public and private security forces, flowing from its own experiences in Colombia in the 1990s. BP is also a corporate party to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative that focuses on revenue transparency, comparing business revenues with government receipts. In addition, BP engaged Senator Mitchell to oversee its work in Indonesia, and responded to stakeholder concerns about social risks relating to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline between the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. Lord John Browne (the former BP CEO) describes these approaches in his two biographies and Christine Bader is eloquent on how such work inspired her during her time with the company in her book ‘The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist’.

It is because BP is a company associated with good social practice in some other parts of the world, that the Gulf of Mexico example is also highly relevant to discussions on social license. What was it about deep-water drilling that did not necessitate a similar multi-stakeholder approach to the risks involved? If there had been greater consensus between BP and its competitors about the appropriate levels of social risk management, would they have testified against the company in Congress in the same way? Since the disaster, BP has committed $500 million over 10 years to fund independent scientific research through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative which will indeed focus on issues of risk and mitigation and might develop greater stakeholder consensus in years to come. But in many ways the horse has already bolted.

I am interested why oil companies do now take a ‘know and show’ consensus –building approach on issues such as security or revenue transparency, but not on other issues of high public concern. Take for example the fracking debate in many parts of Europe where concerns over environmental impact are not (yet) informed by objective evidence and impartial opinion. If the greatest danger associated with fracking is indeed water contamination, why is so little attention given to the use of such fracking technology in water scarce areas of northern South Africa or Botswana, whilst so much is given to well-healed Sussex villages near Brighton? Will the fracking debate in Europe go the same direction as the GMO debate a generation earlier, where emotion gets in the way of the facts? Despite this social risk, as well as significant commercial and well as energy security dimensions, there is no significant multi-stakeholder initiative on fracking proposed as of yet.

For me the Deepwater Horizon example raises the importance of involving stakeholders in agreeing what adequate mitigation and risk management actually means before disaster strikes. It is much more expensive and time-consuming to do this after the fact, after social license has been severely eroded. In fact it might take a generation or two to actually to regain sufficient trust, legitimacy and consent. So why do we not see multi-stakeholder approaches to other material issues for the industry that are perceived to have significant environmental or social risk? At the end of the day, it is a leadership issue. CEOs need to convince shareholders and political leaders their voters (and perhaps also themselves first) that social license is indeed a material concept. As the recent University of Queensland report has shown, the loss of community trust can cost a mining company up to $20 million a week if operations are blocked, so it can also impact the bottom line even before the lawyers get involved.

Legitimacy – 10 things any business should do


Legitimacy – 10 things any business should do

“The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”

–  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

My book on the “Social License” defines the social license concept in relation to three foundational principles: legitimacy, trust and consent. It is the first of these three that is perhaps the most fundamental and hence the subtitle to the book: “How to keep your organisation legitimate”. The word does not appear in many CEO speeches but this does not mean that legitimacy is something not considered by clever business strategists, it is.

I won’t get into the definitional issues on this blog, but I do go on to explore three permutations of the legitimacy relating to both organisation and a specific activity (a little in the way Donald Rumsfeld once talked about knowledge). Organisations might have their own legitimacy but a specific activity does not, or an activity might be legitimate but the organisation might lack it, or both organisation and activity have sufficient legitimacy for the social license to root. It is only in this third variation that I believe social license can exist. I also dismiss cases where both activity and organisation are illegitimate (the fourth permutation) and leave this to the criminologists to discuss.

Anyway, the fourth chapter of my book sets out 10 things any business should do to try and improve its legitimacy – the first seven relate to the business itself, and the other three to the activity in question.

Things that help make a business legitimate:

1.  The provision of real value both in financial and social terms

2. Understanding the true social impacts of the business

3.  The opportunity cost of the company existing in social terms

4.  The efficiency of the business and the effectiveness of its management

5.  Company structure, governance and accountability

6.  Understanding the different needs of shareholders, stakeholders and rights-holders

7.   Paying enough tax and in the right place

And in relation to specific activity:

8.   Adequate due diligence: prevention and mitigation

9.  The provision of adequate remedies

10.  Appropriate levels of transparency and disclosure

Obviously I go into a bit more detail in the book itself but I am interested to hear what might be missing from the list?






What’s wrong with CSR?



Sir Geoffrey Chandler (formerly a senior executive with Shell and then founder of the Amnesty International Business Group in the UK) stated in 2003:

“[CSR] implies that business … has no inherent social utility, but requires a sanitising “add-on” – something which enables it to “give back” to society, a sentiment frequently heard on the lips of corporate leaders apparently unaware that this suggests that their own core activities are parasitic, which, without appropriate policies and principles relating to the whole of their impact, they may indeed be.”

Many of us miss Sir Geoffrey’s leadership and must ask ourselves how much has changed in the past years? Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown into a global industry, with companies and CEOs lining up to show how they contribute social and environmental value to some of society’s most pressing problems. This, of course, is a good thing—better than the Milton Friedman vision of business operating in a context totally removed from society (although he too believed in mandatory rules of the marketplace). This movement of course, has made a positive contribution, however, there is much – good and bad – that currently sits under the umbrella of CSR: from self-serving public relations to philanthropy, and from supply chain compliance to working on shared social value projects. So asking a question such as “do you think CSR is a good thing?“ is like asking “do you think newspapers are a good thing?” It depends a lot on the content. This diversity of things that are included under the CSR banner, and the lack of a clear definition, means the label “CSR” too often obscures and does not clarify any activity’s relationship with the social contract.

The purpose of this critique, developed in Chapter Three of my book, is not to condemn the vital work of many others, or myself for that matter, but to show the size of the conceptual gap that needs to be filled if we are to explore the social responsibilities of non-state actors seriously and the value that the social license concept might offer in this context.  For anyone who might find some of my criticisms of CSR a little too direct, remember I am criticising myself here also – I have worked in CSR for nearly 20 years. My intention is to point to where I see problems and offer a way forward.

 CSR lacks a clear definition, purpose, or end goal

There are many definitions of CSR. Sometimes, when I am teaching, I put on the Powerpoint presentation the official (but unattributed) CSR definitions recognized by the Brazilian, Chinese, and Indian governments, as well as that of the European Union, to see if the students can guess which belongs to whom. It is a fun exercise—try it sometime, perhaps for the whole of the G20. The idea of business doing good for society has been interpreted in line with the political context of each of these economies and the societies they reflect. There is no internationally recognized definition of CSR, which in itself tells you something.

CSR is not a requirement

When push comes to shove, business unit managers in the vast majority of companies are rarely fired for not meeting CSR targets (unless they are the CSR manager themselves). They might be marked down on their scorecard during appraisal, but not fired. However, if they seriously breached health and safety, workplace discrimination, or the personal privacy of an employee, they might well be fired—and rightly so. But this is not seen as CSR? Why? Herein lies the contradiction in how many businesses still regard CSR. If CSR is about what is voluntary, then it is always on the edge of what one must do, and if health and safety or equal opportunities are something one must do, then it can’t be CSR. But why would some of the most serious social impacts a company can have not be seen as corporate social responsibility. It is a responsibility, it is social, and it is most definitely within a corporation.

CSR is not core to the business model

Porter and Kramer are also talking about CSR nowadays or the need for an improved version of it. So whilst civil society has criticized CSR for its lack of accountability, business schools have criticized it for its lack of focus on innovation and the creation of value. The concept of “shared value” is a compelling one and has attracted the attention of a number of leading CEOs. The role of business innovation in terms of tackling societal ills, in particular in healthcare, or the opportunities brought to the world by the internet or mobile telephones, suggests that there is much that shared value can deliver as a concept. If the “Shared Value” construct helps to bring CSR closer to core business models, then this is a good thing also. But if business is serious about the delivery of public goods, it is entering the social contract. What is missing from much of the discussion on shared value are the consent-based and justice-based expectations we might have for businesses. As I will seek to explain, true shared value will not be possible without social license.

So why is social license a better way of understanding social responsibility?

So why do I think social license might be a more useful concept than much mainstream CSR when trying to define what is going on, and what will need to go on for organizations to be responsible societal actors in the years to come? In my view, social license offers the following advantages

  • It describes a set of relationships by which it is the relationship between individuals in society that sits at the center and the duties they confer to the state. Non-state actors need to be clear about whether they are part of the social contract (i.e. civil society) or not (i.e. organizations whose primary purpose is not social), and then interact on social issues accordingly.
  • Social license cannot come into being unless the organization which seeks to secure it is perceived to have enough legitimacy and trust, and the specific activities involved cannot proceed with sufficient consent from those who are impacted or have a stake in the consequences of the activity. Importantly, this requires clarity about an organization’s position in relation to the social contract.
  • As a facet of the social contract, social license requires a number of consent-based and justice-based phenomena to be present—balancing the needs and views of specific communities with international norms, in particular, internationally recognized human rights.
  • Unlike CSR, social license relates to specific activities and not to organizations. Therefore it avoids platitudes such as “company x is good at CSR” or “company y is a good company.”
  • Social license cannot be “self-declared”—it describes an equitable balance of interests which allows an activity to continue and to thrive, but it is dynamic and can always be withdrawn. Organizations can work to achieve the underpinning requirements, the result of which will hopefully be securing the social license for a particular project or activity. But social license cannot be managed or controlled directly by any single organization. This also reflects the reality that even a local community cannot necessarily hold the right to veto against a particular activity if it is clearly in the interests of all others.
  • Social license avoids tiresome generalities about whether mandatory or voluntary approaches to CSR are better. Social license focuses on the impacts of specific activities and the associated behavior of all involved. By focusing on the outcomes, it allows discussions about how best to get there—what needs to be required by law and what does not.

My book takes these arguments further, but I recognise it is just the start of a more profound discussion we all need to have and to share reflections about what is wrong with CSR, or at least old-fashioned understandings of what CSR is. Nor I do I believe so a second that Geoffrey would have agreed with all of my arguments but he would want us all to continue to challenge each other and to advance collective thinking and accountability.




























What is the social license?

The social license in a nutshell


After reviewing a number of existing definitions and critiques of “social license to operate”, Chapter Two of the book makes the following observations about “the social license”:

  1. The social license relates to the activities of any organization. It cannot be directly managed or self-awarded, rather it is the accumulation of a number of factors that will be explored in greater depth in the book. It is these factors that organizations can manage, not the social license itself.
  2. It is much easier to notice the absence of the social license than its presence. The presence of the social license might be described as an equitable balance, or harmony, between different interests that allows an activity to continue and to thrive. However, as it is dynamic, it can always be withdrawn.
  3. The social license relates to what an organization does as opposed to what it is—i.e. it relates to the activities of an organization.
  4. The social license should be understood in social contract terms and therefore different types of organization will acquire the social license in different ways for their activities because they have a different relationship to the social contract. The classic distinctions are: for governments, by being accountable and effective servants of the social contract in society; for civil society, it is about strengthening the accountability of government or the strength of the social contract itself, and for business (whose primary purpose is not social) it is about not weakening the social contact or exploiting existing weaknesses—and finding ways of building capacity within the existing social contract without replacing it.
  5. Later in the book, I test the hypothesis as there is some evidence that on some issues, such as internet governance, dealing with remote communities or international public–private partnerships, business is being granted a much wider social license and is treated as if it were a social actor such as an NGO or even a government.
  6. The social license does not replace political license or legal license, in fact quite the opposite is the case. However, both legal and political licenses have limitations and they are increasingly reliant on the social license.
  7. The limitations of existing political and legal license need to be understood in an international context and against international norms such as human rights. Modern interpretations of social contract theory have made much use of human rights and so too does this approach to understanding the social license.

It is for this reason that Chapter Two starts with the latin epitaph “Nemo judex in cause sua” (no one can be judge of their own cause). The first two pages also focus on the Niger Delta story and quote part of Ken Saro Wiwa’s statement before his execution in 1995: “I predict that the scene here will be played and replayed by generations yet unborn. Some have already cast themselves in the role of villains, some are tragic victims, some still have a chance to redeem themselves. The choice is for each individual.”

So whilst I argue throughout the book that no organisation can award itself a social license, it can very much manage or influence many of the underpinning factors which result in its presence or absence. The book explores what some of these factors are drawing on a range of experiences.





The start: Why The Social License?

I wanted to write a book about the current state of affairs at the business-society interface and wanted a fresh approach – not one following the tramlines of existing ‘corporate social responsibility’  (CSR) thinking or another book on business and human rights, there have been several excellent books already written on the latter (not least by my colleagues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business). I wanted to come to the issues afresh and from first principles as much as possible. I am therefore wholly to blame for the arguments set out in the book and this blog.

The enduring vision I have of why I work in this area is that of the evolution of the marketplace – a point Anita Roddick was lucid on. Several hundred years ago, and still in physical markets in many parts of the world, buyers and sellers operate in close proximity – they know each other, where each other lives and are likely to meet on a weekly or daily basis. There has been and still is, in such market places, a greater sense of interpersonal accountability. This is not to say that there were not long complex supply chains in past ages (obsidian, for example, was traded over thousands of kilometres over thousands of years) and also there were clearly abusive practices such as slave labour, but customers were much more actively involved in making judgements about the quality and reliability of not just the product but also the behaviour of the seller. Contrast this with the world of the past 20 years, where global value chains are hugely complex and where the humans involved (be they workers, investors, customers or consumers)  are very much disempowered in their ability to  influence the way the business of business is conducted.  We need new tools, awareness and laws to bridge this gap which has externalised the true social and environmental cost of production. At a instinctive level, the book is a reaction to the dehumanising effect of much of what we now call the global marketplace.

I was also interested that the term ‘social license to operate’ was emerging in many different places around the world and for different reasons. True, it remains a term still associated mainly with the extractive industries, but it I hear it elsewhere – within constitutional think tanks in Kenya, for example, or US-based beverage  companies. It is an attractive term because it is suggestive of a rationale about why any non-state actor should engage in social issues, particularly why an organisation whose primary stated purpose is not social (i.e. a business) should do so.  Unlike CSR or even human rights, it is an outcome and not just an objective. That said the term ‘social license’ was not clearly defined and was at risk quickly moving into the category of ‘self-declaratory CSR’ – as John Ruggie would call it.

So the book tries to pin down the ‘social licence’ concept and in a way relevant not just to business, but all other types of organisation. The pinning required something of a conceptual framework, more perhaps than a non-academic book should attempt (particularly when written by someone who is very much not an academic).  I had the work of all my colleagues in the business and human rights field as ballast – which reminds us that a human-centric approach must be about impact and impact in human rights terms. And that accountability is about redress and remedy, but it is also about prevention as well as transparency. This I had ‘in my back pocket’ so to speak and those of you that read the book will see it becomes an important feature of the later chapters. But I needed to get there – and particularly for the more skeptical reader who might think that ‘social licence’ sounds nice but is just a fashionable buzz word, and that human rights and business have little to do with each other.  Therefore I evoked the thinking of some of the greatest in making some superficial but important links back to social contract thinking of 200-300 years ago. It is not so easy to dismiss social contract theory as fluff given the influence it had on shaping democracies and ideas of civil society in many parts of the world.

It seems I am one of the first in the world to define social license in social contract terms, and you can judge to what extent I pull this off. The social contract experts who have seen my book have been polite and kind, but I knowingly dip my toe into what are very deep waters. However, there is much of what I seen in the writing of those such as Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau which does resonate with questions about the role of business (and other organisations) in contemporary society. At a minimum, I hope to provoke a reaction from which we all might learn something. And, as my patience with the ‘CSR industry’ is wearing thin, I give us all a good collective kick to do better and too ask the tougher questions about the activities of all of our organisations.

I will not just be blogging to promote this my first book. Rather I wish to develop my own voice and thinking on a range of issues, perhaps resulting in future books perhaps to be written by others. I hope some of you will share this journey through your own comments and writings. The role and legitimacy of non-state organisations in today’s world (be they businesses, NGOs, communities, religious organisations, regional authorities and so on) is one of the most fundamental of our life time and so tough questions need to be asked.