Corporate social responsibility: serious cause for concern
The need for the public health community to remain wary of corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy by companies associated with the tobacco industry was demonstrated at the World Cancer Congress hosted by the International Union Against Cancer (known by its French acronym - UICC) in Washington DC in July. Snuggled within a session on “The role of corporate citizens: Looking at the business community as volunteers” was a presentation entitled “The role of KPMG as a corporate citizen,” during which the audience, numbering 60 or so cancer experts, were subjected to a glowing review of what the consultancy firm was “giving back” to society. KPMG International, a Swiss-based network of independent member firms, boasts 94 000 staff in 144 countries. Its long list of good works range from its Relay for Life fun runs to staff volunteering, with much of these funds raised given to cancer research. Such activities form part of KPMG’s commitment to CSR, described on its website as “Our commitment to transparency and integrity and our strong desire to make a positive difference to the world [as it reflects] the beliefs and actions of many of our clients”.
What was not mentioned, however, was the longstanding relationship of KPMG with the tobacco industry. Acting as what Philip Morris calls Information Management Consultants, KPMG has been a long time advisor on such key issues as tobacco taxation, advertising restrictions, smoking bans, investment in emerging markets and, more recently, corporate social responsibility. In its 2004 annual report, KPMG cited its “strong relationships with such leading companies as Philip Morris. These highly respected companies placed their confidence in KPMG, trusting us to provide the insights and dedication necessary to meet their changing needs”. One of those changing needs is CSR. Internal tobacco industry documents describe how, as British American Tobacco (BAT) was developing its strategy to gain “air cover” from public criticism through social reporting, KPMG expressed that it was “keen to work with BAT” in “repositioning tobacco manufacturers as socially responsible”. KPMG had already played a key role in developing the CSR strategy for Philip Morris.
Two questions are raised regarding engagement by the public health community with CSR. First, there is a need for more critical debate within and beyond the public health community on the rapid proliferation of CSR initiatives, which are diverse in both their content and intent. CSR is, in large, about improved transparency and accountability by the corporate sector. KPMG’s own Transparency Report and Global Code of Conduct focus on “performance with integrity” based on “core values” of “The KPMG Way”. Among its stated commitments are “Observing rigorous standards of client and engagement acceptance” and “Preserving KPMG’s brand and reputation by avoiding actions that would discredit the organization.” How, therefore, does KPMG reconcile these aspirations with its major role in advising the world’s largest tobacco companies on fighting tobacco control efforts and expanding within emerging markets?
Second, within the context of the World Cancer Congress, which purposefully overlapped with the World Conference on Tobacco OR Health to draw attention to the role of tobacco in cancer morbidity and mortality, the invitation extended to KPMG was puzzling. To what extent was it appropriate for an organisation with such a close affiliation to the tobacco industry to be provided with a platform by the UICC to present its CSR credentials? KPMG provides extensive services to the tobacco industry including research and policy advice directly intended to counter tobacco control efforts. From the perspective of KPMG, providing such services could perhaps be considered offset by its laudable contributions to raising significant funds for the American Cancer Society (ACS). The ACS, the main organiser of the World Cancer Congress this year, seems to think so too, awarding its first annual Eugene O’Kelly Award to Recognise Service, Volunteerism to KPMG as “a respected industry leader and advocate in the fight against cancer”. The award is named after the former CEO of KPMG who died of cancer in 2005. Allowing a firm with such extensive tobacco industry affiliations to present its CSR credentials to a world conference on cancer, however, clearly warrants wider debate within the public health community.