In recent years the 'Janus face' of globalisation has received much attention, most notably at international meetings such as those of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle and the G7/8 summits, as well as in a number of books. Overall suspicion about corporate behaviour and accountability has been fuelled following accounting scandals, especially those at Enron, WorldCom and Ahold.
Interest in this topic first started in the 1970s, resulting at the time in attempts by international organisations such as the OECD, ILO and UN to draw up codes of conduct to regulate multinational behaviour. Some multinationals reacted by adopting codes or introducing their own 'rules of engagement'. In the US and in a few European countries, social reporting emerged, but usually with the more limited objective of disclosing information on employee matters, and sometimes also environmental and local community impacts. Overall, however, this development lasted less than a decade.
In the 1980s, mandatory international codes proved to be unfeasible, and interest in codes of conduct, social reporting and the international dimensions of corporate behaviour faded. At the same time, reduced government intervention and market liberalisation facilitated globalisation, creating a social and regulatory void in which non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started to express concerns about the negative environmental and social implications.
In the 1990s, NGOs and international organisations renewed their efforts to increase corporate social accountability, to which companies and their business associations responded. Multinationals started to adopt codes of conduct and publish environmental, social or sustainability reports. Our research on corporate social responsibility and accountability, carried out in the past five years, shows an increasing activity of large multinationals. Currently, 65 per cent of the largest 200 industrial MNCs have a code of conduct, and almost 60 per cent publish a sustainability report on environmental and sometimes societal issues (see Table 1).
Variations can be found between sectors and countries, depending on the topic at hand. The financial sector, for example, is less active in the publication of sustainability reports, although the trend is improving. Twenty-five per cent of banking and insurance firms listed …