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European business ponders its social role

``The environment is not a political football.... We have to accept that we all caused the problems, because they are society's problems and we are all part of society.'' George Pritchard is an environmentalist, but his audience for those words was one that would have surprised Mr. Pritchard five years ago: a group of Europe's top managers. Pritchard resigned last year as international campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, the environmental group, to become a consultant to industry.

``My long-term aim is quite simply to see environmentalists on the inside of board rooms,'' says Pritchard.

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He was speaking at an international management symposium at St. Gallen University this week; some 1,000 corporate leaders from around Europe were present. Pritchard's presence signals that European management is going through a phase of self-examination.

He and Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO in the United States, were invited to present outsiders' views of corporate responsibility - the first time in the 17-year history of the symposium that managers felt the need to do so.

Mr. Kirkland called for an end to the wave of mergers and acquisitions, saying ``some $190 billion has been spent in the United States for barren and fruitless corporate takeovers and billions more for mere defense against them.''

He also called for an international minimum wage. ``We want to compete with the products of foreign workers who earn enough to buy more of their own goods as well as more of ours, in their growing markets as well as ours.''

In lectures and workshops, it is apparent that managers here are concerned about environmental questions, the sense of social responsibility of students entering the work force, fair management practices in developing countries - in short, morality in big business.

Will the mood last? According to R.Hawrylyshyn, a member of the executive committee of the Club of Rome and author of several works on international management, European ``corporations are in a period of grace which we didn't have in the '70s. But what companies do with it varies tremendously.''

Current discussions about morality or responsibility take two forms, he says. ``There is a kind of a tug within [corporate] Europe between companies that feel it is important to have people who can ethically, morally lead the company, and companies who say, `We have to manifest our goodness to get the acceptability we need.'''

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Richard Peterson, an American who heads Computerland's European operations, believes ``corporate arrogance'' is lessening. His own company was suffering huge losses in Europe until a couple of years ago when it began to hire local managers rather than sending Americans. The move made good business sense, but it was also part of a greater sensitivity, says Mr. Peterson.

Several events in recent years have contributed to the new mood. A Nestl'e executive recalls that when church groups and other activists began their campaign against the multinational company in the '70s because of its selling infant formula in developing countries, several managers were shocked and took the public's anger personally.

Today, he says, managers are taught to react less emotionally. Union Carbide, too, found itself accused of immoral behavior after the Bhopal accident in India. Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, made headlines last November with a massive chemical spill into the Rhine. Company officials at the time reacted defensively and were promptly labeled anti-environment.

Last month the company announced it was not only paying to clean up the Rhine, it is setting up a foundation to protect the Rhine because companies should make ``a positive contribution'' to safeguard the environment.

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