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Department Seal Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy
Corporate Ethics and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

Background Paper
Released by the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, October 26, 2000
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Corporate social responsibility has become an area of increasing activity in recent years. In an effort to be responsive to the consumers, investors, employees and the expectations of the public at large, business firms have been paying increased attention to the subject. A growing number of firms are developing internal codes of conduct and are exploring a variety of other means for integrating ethical standards into their management systems.

These activities have been complemented by the development of industry-wide codes and principles on corporate responsibility developed in concert with other groups, including trade unions and NGOs. U.S. business has been in the forefront of these developments and has been a leader in bringing high standards with them wherever they operate.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises have the potential to be one of the most significant recent developments in this area and hold the promise of providing greater coherence through a broadly supported comprehensive set of principles on good corporate conduct.

The Guidelines were originally developed in 1976 and have been revised several times since then, most recently in June of this year. However, the scope of the changes resulting from the present review and its confluence with the growing interest in the area of corporate responsibility has substantially increased the level of attention they are receiving.

There are a number of unique features that contribute to their potential in this regard.

  • First, they are recommendations by all OECD governments to their firms encompassing uniform standards consistent with those already applied by many U.S. firms.

  • Second, they have been developed with the support and cooperation of representatives of business, labor, and elements of civil society.
  • Third, they provide for an ongoing process of discussion and dialogue between governments and these actors in their implementation.

  • Finally, they are part of the broader fabric of commitments relating to investment and multinational enterprises undertaken by members of the OECD, including the principle of national treatment.
OECD members have decided to promote these commitments to non-members in the hopes of establishing a broader global standard. Whether the potential of the OECD Guidelines will be realized ultimately will depend on the level of confidence among the parties involved that they provide a viable basis for further cooperation.

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