Chinese companies are beginning to develop so-called corporate social responsibility programs aimed at boosting labor and environmental standards, according to a top executive at plastics manufacturer and petrochemical giant Sinopec Corp.
Wang Jiming, vice chairman of Beijing-based Sinopec and head of a business group in China pushing sustainable development, told a conference that some Chinese companies need to improve their environmental and social footprint. Such efforts are important for China because the country possesses per capita only about one-third of the natural resources and 25 percent of the water of what the rest of the world averages per capita, he said.
Wang, who is executive president of the China Business Council for Sustainable Development, spoke at a Nov. 1-4 conference in Washington sponsored by the U.S.-based Business for Social Responsibility group. He said CBCSD formed in January 2004.
Wang said Sinopec, one of the country's largest plastics manufacturers and Asia's largest oil refiner, spent 9.57 billion yuan ($1.18 billion) in the past decade on cleaner production technologies and safety enhancements, and is seeing its industrial accident rate drop. Sinopec is 68 percent owned by the Chinese government.
But, Wang said, some firms are too interested in short-term profits and not open to corporate social responsibility concepts.
``Frankly speaking, due to insufficient development and awareness, some Chinese companies still need education on sustainable development,'' he said, speaking through a translator. He said that some firms, for example, are willing to hurt the environment for short-term profits.
The topic of Asia's rise on the business stage was prominent at the conference, and not every speaker was optimistic.
Chandran Nair, head of Hong Kong-based think tank Global Institute for Tomorrow, said it remains to be seen if Asian firms will act any better than Western firms and their governments historically have acted, pursuing cheap labor and resources.
The rise of the Chinese and Indian economies will bring major changes in world consumption, but he told the conference Asia does not yet have as much of a tradition of civil society, including environmental groups, to put pressure on government and companies.
``I'm not that optimistic,'' he said. ``I think we will see Asian companies behaving as badly [as Western firms]. They will say it is our turn.''
Nair said the topic is complex: Multinationals face contradictory pressures from Western societies to adopt corporate social responsibility but also produce cheap goods. And Asian firms, many without the resources of Western competitors, have no choice but to compete on price, and sometimes resent being lectured, he said.
Another speaker from China said the country is developing its own programs. Chen Ying, deputy director general of the China Enterprise Confederation, said her Beijing-based group is developing corporate responsibility guidelines, and is interested in promoting environmental protection, safety and health standards, and employment promotion.
Chen, a CBCSD board member, said Western multinationals help promote corporate responsibility in China and educate their supply chains about best practices.