World, Inc. is the sixth book from Bruce Piasecki, founder and president of the American Hazard Control Group, a management consulting firm that specializes in corporate environmental concerns. Piasecki has worked with leaders of some of the largest corporations in the world, and he uses this experience to argue that a silent revolution, which he calls "The S Frontier," is now occurring within corporate America.
According to Piasecki, contemporary environmental concerns are so alarming that consumers will no longer tolerate corporate waste and irresponsibility. Consumers today also are more aware of the four billion have-nots in the developing world and will not look the other way while corporations operate sweat shops or exploit indigenous economies. Instead, consumers increasingly are exercising their power by refusing to invest in, or buy products from, corporations that they view as amoral, or worse. In order to survive in this new world, Piasecki argues, corporations need to acknowledge these concerns and develop products that embody the growing social and environmental consciousness of their customers. Moreover, because fifty-one of the world's top hundred economies are now corporations rather than nations, and many of those corporations are run by what Piasecki calls "social response capitalists," the shift to true corporate social responsibility will have an unprecedented and beneficial impact on the future of humanity.
While it is a powerful — indeed, a hopeful — idea, Piasecki fails to analyze the causes or implications of this so-called S Frontier. Instead, his book is more a case study of how corporations make it appear as if they are acting in a socially responsible manner, rather than an in-depth analysis of corporate power in a globalized world.
Piasecki devotes many pages to case studies of Toyota and HP (Hewlett Packard), corporations he claims are leaders in this new environment. To support his point, he discusses the success of Toyota's line of hybrid cars and examines HP's commitment to environmentally safe products and to programs that make HP products cheaper and more accessible to the world's poor. He fails to explore, however, whether these initiatives have actually had an impact on the environment or social inequality. There is much about HP's new ad campaign and branding, and very little about HP's ability or willingness to actually affect change.
Piasecki believes HP has the power to make the world a better place. It creates products that are "better and faster," which ostensibly makes life easier for consumers (who are continually urged to buy the latest, fastest technology). But he neglects to discuss the obvious tension between responding to consumer need and creating consumer need with which all companies must struggle. Further, throughout the book Piasecki suggests that the environmental initiatives of the corporations he has studied will not actually have a beneficial impact on the environment. Many hybrid car models, for example, deliver little in the way of fuel savings. And corporations that spend billions and billions to create hundreds of millions of new consumers in developing countries — consumers who lust after the wasteful lifestyles of those of who live in the West — are simply working at cross-purposes to their own environmental initiatives.
Piasecki continually refers to the "four billion have-nots" of the world, and multinational corporations' "responsibility" to redistribute wealth on a global scale. But he offers no suggestions as to how this might be done. He refers to Amy Chau's World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and admits to being disturbed by Chau's assertion that the presence of multinational corporations in developing countries often instigates violence and leads to greater economic disparity. But having raised the issue, he drops it just as quickly. Apparently, addressing these difficult and uncomfortable realities is not a central feature of the S Frontier.
It isn't difficult to see how Piasecki's book would appeal to corporate leaders looking to understand and perhaps integrate the tenets of social response capitalism into their own companies. The book is filled with charts and graphs that highlight the positive relationship between social responsibility and profitability. (To Piasecki's credit, he makes no effort to conceal the fact his examples are based on the programs of his own clients.) It's also clear that Piasecki fervently believes in the potential of social response capitalism.
But if you are looking for a critical and thoroughly researched examination of corporate social responsibility, this probably isn't the book for you. In easy-to-read prose, Piasecki continually defines and re-defines what the S Frontier is, but never explains how the S Frontier will work, or why corporations are equipped to replace social and environmental programs funded by the public and philanthropic sectors. And while he argues that corporate leaders often are more powerful than political leaders and therefore must be willing to shoulder the obligations that come with power, he never discusses the implications of that view. Should multinational corporations have more power than governments? Should we demand more transparency of corporations? Should they be subject to a system of checks and balances? These questions and many others are never addressed. The result is much like running on a treadmill: You can zip right through Piasecki's book, but by the end you just don't seem to have gotten anywhere.