Foreign companies implementing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in China often face an uphill battle. A quote from an individual working in the textiles industry in China highlights:
“One of the biggest problems with ethical manufacturing guidelines in China is that often people do their best to work around them, regardless of what company policy requires.”
So why does it seem so hard?
One reason it is so hard, is because China is so different to the ‘West’. There are different ways of getting things done and often different motivations. The cultural, political and historical context of China needs to be considered when implementing CSR. Recently I came across a series of articles on CSR in China. Country Briefing: China written by Paul French for the Ethical Corporation reinforces the difference and complexity of CSR in China. Three key points he makes include:
- In China there is a stronger focus on philanthropy and compliance. Whereas in the West CSR is considered more voluntary and altruistic
- China’s economy has been built through access to vast quantities of cheap labour
- The concept of an NGO (non government organisation) in China doesn’t really exist. Those that do are often tightly controlled by the government
Recognising differences in how CSR is viewed in China is the first step to structuring an approach that will work better. Foreign companies need to focus their CSR strategy on:
- Building partnerships with local organisations
It is important to work with local communities including the local government. This will build (two-way) awareness and understanding of what you are trying achieve. Focusing on Guanxi (networks) will help to build traction and sustainability. Pentland are doing fantastic work in this regard.
- Focus on compliance and mandatory reporting
This is the challenging part, mainly due to the scale of operations in China. Compliance control is slow and grinding work and you need a lot of hands on deck. But it is vital if you want your policy to be more than greenwash or PR rhetoric. Ideally you need people external to the company to avoid corruption. GRI (Global Reporting Index) and UN Global Compact provide great resources and support around reporting.
- Understand the cultural context of China
The Chinese proverb “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” is one simple example of explaining why CSR guidelines are often not adhered to. The more you learn about how culture influences peoples decisions and actions in China the more effective social responsibility initiatives will become.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to CSR in China. For great reading check out: