Abigail Townsend: So companies should be nicer? Go tell investors

Why can't Microsoft behave like the Gates Foundation? It doesn't have to
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The Independent Online

There is an odd dichotomy about Bill Gates stepping down from Microsoft to dedicate himself to a life of philanthropy. On the one hand, the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does is incredible. It currently has $30bn (£16bn) in assets and is focusing not on pompous, Victorian-throwback causes like the arts but the eradication of diseases that needlessly kill thousands, such as malaria and Aids, and education.

Mr Gates may have a fortune of around £27bn, but he is doing his darndest to give away just about all of it - 95 per cent no less - by the time he logs off once and for all.

But then there is the company that made him all this wealth. Microsoft's dominance is seen, in some quarters at least, as all that is bad about big business. It stands accused of crushing smaller rivals, of muscling competition out of the way and stifling choice. It has locked horns with regulators more times then you care to mention, and is still fighting the European Union's order that it should open up software codes to rivals. In the pursuit of its billions, Microsoft has pushed everyone and everything out of its way.

But Microsoft is not unique. All companies want a bigger market share and bigger profits, it's what they do - and they will push the limits of what's acceptable to achieve it.

And therein lies the problem whenever companies start talking about corporate social responsibility: there's too big a whiff of empty spin about it. Despite the growth of socially responsible investing, these sort of dedicated funds still only account for a fraction of the billions swilling round the City. So it is hardly surprising so many companies do little more than pay lip service to CSR. If we really want change then investors - just like Mr Gates - will have to give up some of those profits. And I'm guessing that's not going to happen any time soon.

So, as ever, it falls to the consumer to lead the way. If, for example, you don't like the way Tesco treats its suppliers, don't shop there. The supermarket chain has already seen the writing on the wall: as the backlash grew, it responded with a series of measures aimed at boosting its green credentials, backing local suppliers and becoming more involved in the communities it was alienating.

Its rivals have also responded to changing customer demand and have been doing just this sort of thing for some time, while last week Asda, after heavy opposition from local residents, pulled plans for a controversial new store in London's East End. It's hardly surprising, then, that the latest investigations by environmental groups have come up with glowing findings on the supermarket giants.

So it can be done. Just don't ask the City to do it - or expect a measly CSR annual report to make any real changes.

Green in the pink

While Mr Gates can only be applauded for giving his money away, on this side of the pond we evidently like our businessmen brash, proud and rich.

Just look at the Queen's birthday honours, with two of the City's biggest characters receiving gongs: the very rich Philip Green and equally rich Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Mr Green is well known for his combative approach to, well, most things in life, from his dealings with the press to tilting at Marks & Spencer. Stelios, meanwhile, championed no-frills flying - the same no-frills flying that environmentalists are concerned about. But these are two men who have built up companies that many people love, or at least use all the time (Topshop for that new bikini to wear on your easyCruise holiday anyone?). And no one is denying them their rewards, be they cash or gongs.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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