Tag Archives: marketplace

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.