Opening Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Conference “Corporate Responsibility – A Win-Win Solution”

29.04.2008 - Speech

Justice and social equality are indispensable at global level too, as Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized at the conference “Corporate Responsibility – A Win-Win Solution” in Berlin. The aim of the conference, organized jointly by the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, was to take stock of the social responsibility of German enterprises both at home and abroad.

Esteemed Colleague,
Sir Bob,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Somewhere around a year or a year and a half ago, a well-known businessman was asked by a major German business journal whether CSR was worthwhile for companies. His answer: he didn't know. But at least the many CSR consultants could earn a good living from it.

CSR is a fashionable topic, and if the German Foreign Minister makes a speech about it then he must expect to be asked whether he's not in danger of tackling a subject that is somewhat lacking in substance.

I have asked myself that question – and, as you see, I'm giving the speech. Because I think the widespread discussion about CSR – a discussion which indeed sometimes gets out of hand – hides an old and important subject. A subject to which we cannot give enough attention: the question of social cohesion in a globalized world, a world increasingly without borders.

The question of companies' social responsibility is not really a new one. It's just the wholesale use of the English term that's new. As early as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, farsighted entrepreneurs like Werner von Siemens and Robert Bosch were socially committed. In 1906 Bosch was one of the first bosses to introduce the 8-hour working day, a move for which he received considerable abuse and the soubriquet “Red Bosch”. The Margarethenhöhe area in Essen and the Siemensstadt district of Berlin today remain wonderful examples of modern urban planning which freed the people from their previous inhumane living conditions.

These entrepreneurs did these things not, or not only, in order to burnish their company's reputation in the short term or to quickly increase their sales figures. Rather, they acted out of the firm conviction that their long-term business success depended on their being able to rely on skilled, well-trained, highly-motivated workers in the longer term.

And history has proved them right!

The continuing success of the “Made in Germany” brand is a result of this long-term approach, whose most visible manifestation nowadays is perhaps our dual system of vocational training. It is therefore only logical that this dual system has become one of the most sought-after exports of the German economic and social model. Be it in Kazakhstan or Palestine, Brazil or South Africa – nothing is as sought-after as a German training workshop!

In recent decades this long-term approach has come under pressure from two sides. On the one hand, the short-term logic of the financial markets forces onto the defensive all those within a company who cannot stop insisting on the principles of sustainable management.

And on the other, the international competition for business locations is reducing the pressure to show serious commitment to an individual country and its inner fabric.

What finance director nowadays would approve the construction of a district like Siemensstadt if sometime in the next few years the production caravan is going to move on through Eastern Europe to East Asia and then on to Viet Nam or Laos?

I see the fact that we are still considering CSR so intensively despite the short-term logic of the financial markets and despite the international competition for locations as, firstly, a sign of increasing problem-awareness. More and more people, particularly in the business sector, are asking themselves whether we are still on the right course. Consultants like McKinsey, Roland Berger or Morgan Stanley are just as likely to voice criticism of our financial system as some left-wing Social Democrats have done in recent weeks. And questions of social cohesion, justice and solidarity are being addressed with a new sense of urgency even by large swathes of the bourgeois centre.

Over the next two days you will be taking a very intensive look at all aspects of CSR. I cannot, nor would I wish to, anticipate these discussions as if I were an expert on CSR. But please allow me to say a little bit more about why I as Germany's Foreign Minister believe this discussion to be extremely important.

Just over a fortnight ago the results of a BBC study were published. The BBC had asked 17,000 people in every corner of the world about their perceptions of other countries. It emerged that in comparison with 22 other countries Germany enjoyed the most positive image.

This may perhaps also have something to do with politics. With the fact that we have succeeded, thanks to a difficult and sometimes painful collective effort, in shedding the reputation of “the sick man of Europe” and in bringing our country back out of the shadows.

But it also has something to do with the fact that the qualities of modern Germany tally with many people's expectations and hopes:
• modernity and cosmopolitanism,
• a fair balance between economic efficiency and social security,
• a sustainable foreign policy committed to the principles of fairness and dialogue.

This good reputation helps all of us, policymakers as well as the business sector. It gives our voice weight and earns us esteem – in Europe and far beyond.

And it makes it easier for German companies to gain a foothold outside their traditional markets as well.

One essential part of my job as German Foreign Minister is to open doors for German business.

But how often does it happen that the doors are open but no German company is standing waiting on the threshold? Whether in Central Asia or Latin America, in Viet Nam or West Africa – how often have I heard people say: We would love to do more with the Germans, but they don't come.

Naturally German partners are sought after for their technological efficiency and their reliability. But that is not all – and this brings me to CSR. The people in many up-and-coming areas of the world want German companies because they have a different approach. Because they do not act in the short-term, on the “in and out” principle, but go for long-term commitment.

And again, just as in the days of Siemens and Bosch, these companies are not primarily concerned with polishing their image, but with prudent planning for their core business. With an approach in keeping with the principle of sustainability. Which invests in people and promotes education and training. Which – and this is an important difference from last century – keeps in mind the preservation of the living environment. And which realizes that in the end justice and social equality are indispensable at global level too.

Sometimes the initiative comes from the companies themselves, but sometimes from the politicians.

During one of my trips to Latin America I saw how a German pharmaceutical company was given a “clean industry” award by the Mexican environmental authority. And some of you here today will know that BASF's cooperation with the Chinese environmental agency on the transfer of know-how in housing-stock ecobalance and the development of clean fuels is exemplary.

But sometimes the politicians need the help of business.

Together with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad I recently launched an initiative entitled “Future for Palestine”. Within the scope of this initiative and as a successful example of a PPP, numerous German companies have contributed ideas, concepts and funding from their fields to help bring about visible progress on the economic development of the Palestinian territories in parallel to the Annapolis process: from the construction of kindergartens and schools to the training of apprentices to the provision of modern IT.

We are pursuing a similar approach with our school and education initiative for Africa.

Not even CSR can do without the principle of “best practice”. That is why, a few weeks ago, I asked our embassies and consulates to cooperate with representatives of German business to take stock and to consider how we can make German companies' activities abroad even better known.

One very practical result of these considerations is an internet platform being set up by the Federal Foreign Office together with the Bertelsmann Foundation which will provide information about the social responsibility of enterprises both at home and abroad.

This dynamic business-friendly portal will contain comprehensive country information provided by Germany's embassies, describe successful instances of cooperation, and provide information for management, to help in the search for partners and funding in each of the countries listed.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank the Bertelsmann Foundation very much indeed for having taken up our suggestion so positively on the basis of its many years of work on corporate responsibility and for having sponsored the portal.

And I should like to ask all of you here today to make use of this offer and to make available to the Bertelsmann Foundation your data on foreign projects.

The question of social cohesion and how to secure it in the long term is raised today in a new form – no longer on a purely national level, but as the question of the future shape of global governance. Companies which embrace their social responsibility take on an important role in this context: not as a substitute for the omissions of politicians, but as the pioneering vanguard. Many of the companies represented here today are already just that.

For this I thank them, and I thank you for your attention.

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