Public opinion on responsible business

83% of Irish people recently surveyed are interested in knowing what companies do to behave responsibly, yet almost three in five (59%) do not feel that they have adequate information to judge how business behaves. This is Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 09.39.20according to survey results released by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry in a report entitled ‘How Companies Influence Our Society: Citizens’ View’. This European-wide undertaking assesses the public’s view of corporate social responsibility, defined as “the responsibility of enterprises for their impact on society”, including both positive and negative impacts.

The survey results reveal some interesting insights into the public view of the relationship between companies and society in Ireland. Just over two thirds (67%) of those surveyed felt companies had a positive influence on society, while less than a third (29%) felt it was negative. This contrasts with the European average of 52% positive and 41% negative. SMEs fared well with an 81% positive rating, compared to 62% for large companies. The highest positive ratings were for food and agriculture businesses (89%), with retail and supermarkets also doing well (79%). Unsurprisingly, only a quarter gave the banking and finance sector a positive rating (25%), while the mining, oil and gas industries also did poorly (37%).

The principle positive impact was job creation for 62% of the Irish surveyed. Other positive influences included companies’ contribution to economic growth (33%), training employees (27%), paying taxes (22%), and providing financial or material support to local people (17%). Employment also featured in the negative view; 37% saw the reducing of staff numbers as a negative impact. The others were corruption (32%), environmental damage (28%), poor working conditions and failure to respect labour standards (22%), excessive influence on public policy (32%), and encouraging over consumption (24%). Less than half of Irish people surveyed felt that companies paid more attention to their impact on society than ten years ago (49%), whereas just over a third felt it was now less (34%).

The results also show the public’s view as to who can influence companies’ impact on society: citizens through their purchasing power (49%), company management (40%), public authorities, including EU, national and local (31%), trade unions (15%), investors (16%), and lastly NGOs and charities (12%).

There is no doubt that consumers can wield significant influence, but corralling them towards responsible business is a challenge, particularly in the face of insufficient information, seductive advertising and cheap prices. And many businesses do not sell consumer products and so would be immune to such pressures. As regards public authorities, it should be a concern to them how little faith the Irish public has in their ability to ensure that companies behave responsibly.

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