It started with a vision of what business could be. At the urging of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 38 companies, including Nike and Volvo, embraced nine principles ranging from not hiring child workers to cutting down greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, five years later, some 1,500 firms have signed on to what has become the world's largest corporate citizenship initiative, the United Nations Global Compact, which held its first summit here last month. That explosive growth illustrates what many business leaders already believe: Corporate social responsibility is entering the mainstream.
Membership ranges wildly, from financial powerhouse Goldman Sachs to Amazon Caribbean Guyana Ltd., which employs 200 Amerindians who can hearts of palm in the jungle.
While the compact has no policing powers, it can point to some success stories. For example: William E. Connor & Associates, a product sourcing company headquartered in Hong Kong, reports that an underage girl employed in a supplier's factory was dismissed, provided with an educational stipend, and rehired when she reached legal age. Lafarge, a French construction materials firm, boasts plans to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions to 85 percent of 1990 emissions by 2010. And Banco Itau, a Brazilian bank, touts its healthcare plan and exercise facilities.
Of the compact's nearly 1,700 signatories - a list that not only includes companies, but nongovernmental organizations, unions, and other groups - only 61 are American. US companies are similarly underrepresented in two other United Nations-endorsed efforts, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the World Economic Council for Sustainable Development, says Georg Kell, who heads the compact. The reason? The compact asks companies to embrace principles, rather than meet explicit standards - an approach "not easily understood in [America's] litigious culture," he says.
But US firms are showing more interest. …