Book review of The Social License: How to keep your organization legitimate. By John Morrison

By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct

‘What is wrong with CSR?’

The title of this chapter in John Morrison’s recent book challenges the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. The sentence ‘CSR has become a conceptual sideshow and a conceptual ceiling at the same time’ provides important food for thought for CSR practitioners and policy makers. It is time to give more depth to corporate responsibility concepts.

social license

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.

The book elaborates on the concept of ‘social license’, often referenced in the context of extractive industry operations, through explaining what it is and what it isn’t. Morrison defines the social license “as describing the sum of expectations between an organization and relevant social groups (usually represented by other organizations) in relation to a specific activity or set of related activities.’’ Preconditions for the social license to exist are: ‘’All the organizations— both those involved in the activity and those representing the social groups affected— perceive both each other and the activity itself to have sufficient legitimacy to proceed; There is sufficient trust between all the relevant organizations; The organizations representing the affected social groups have consented to the activity in question.”

I found the explanation of the term ‘consent’ particularly useful and well thought-out.  Morrison takes a nuanced view of the issue of consent, taking into account that not all special interest groups or stakeholders are always aligned. Morrison acknowledges the importance of Free Prior and Informed Consent for indigenous people, however he also recognized that consent should not be viewed as an absolute trump card for all communities, as that would privilege ‘’NIMBYism’’ (Not In My BackYard- many people want clean energy, but not many people want a wind turbine farm in their backyard). Additionally, he acknowledges that power imbalances have to be recognized and dealt with in the context of this sensitive issue.

Although the concept of social license originates from the extractive industries, Morrison points out that it is starting to make its way into other sectors. The garment and textiles sector and the ICT sector are examples where the social license of business is currently vulnerable and may become more so in the future.

The author points out that non-judicial grievance mechanisms, such as the OECD National Contact Points (NCPs),[1] can be important in the context of maintaining a social license.  Morrison makes a compelling point that although statements issued by NCP’s are not legally binding, they are linked to a companies’ social license.  For example, NCP Statements could provide information related to social licence criteria such as whether a lack of legitimacy, consent or trust exists in specific operating contexts.

Morrison touches another interesting topic: the passage of soft law into hard law. He gives examples of the California law on transparency in the supply chain on human trafficking and forced labour, as well as mandatory CSR reporting in several jurisdictions, and mandatory regulation on conflict minerals in the US. He makes the link with the importance of transparency in getting and keeping a social license, and what governments are doing and should further do to strengthen this link.

Overall this book provides a useful conceptual and practical contribution to the field of responsible business conduct!

[1] NCPS are established on the basis of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (the Guidelines) to provide good offices for mediation and recommendations regarding disputes under the Guidelines that are not legally binding.

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One thought on “Book review of The Social License: How to keep your organization legitimate. By John Morrison

  1. Pingback: Some quotes about the book so far | Johnmorrisonbooks

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