Digitalisation & sustainability: Research and business taking joint responsibility  

In June 2021, the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV) and leading companies in Germany published an ethical code. It deals with the responsibility of companies in the field of digitalisation, Corporate Digital Responsibility, or CDR for short. Both of you supported the scientific development of this code in close consultation with the companies involved. Then, in January 2022, the SPD/FDP/Greens coalition transferred responsibility for consumer protection issues to the Federal Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection (BMUV). You recently took part in a CDR conference organised by the BMUV in Berlin. What exactly is Corporate Digital Responsibility?

Alexander Brink (AB): Today, the extraction, storage, evaluation, and transmission of data is the basis of a growing number of business models. This is equally true for innovative start-ups as it is for medium-sized companies and multinational corporations. The large amounts of data that companies work with affect individuals, other companies, civil society organisations, government institutions, and many others. This development results in significant ethical challenges that should not and cannot be regulated by civil or criminal law alone. Ethical awareness and self-responsible action are even more important. The CDR Code published in 2021, combined with voluntary commitments by leading companies, was therefore ground-breaking for future development.

What issues was the CDR conference in summer 2022 about?

Frank Esselmann (FE): The seven pioneering companies that were involved in the publication of the Code in 2021 and committed to digital responsibility, presented their own CDR reports for the first time at the conference. Deutsche Telekom, ING Deutschland, the Otto Group, Telefónica Deutschland, Zalando, Barmer Ersatzkasse, and Weleda documented in these reports what practically they had done, and what they wish to do in the future to fulfil their comprehensive digital responsibility. In doing so, they have taken on a pioneering role in this area. Many companies, not only in Germany, now comment on their digital responsibility, but usually do so selectively and sporadically. The reports presented during the conference, with their five fields of action (handling data, education, employee involvement, inclusion, and climate and resource protection), are the first holistic CDR reports worldwide that are oriented towards continuity. With their transparent form of communication, the seven companies are seting new standards.

AB: At the same time, the conference showed how closely digital corporate responsibility today is linked with challenges that are necessary for the sustainable design of corporate processes. Sustainable transformation and digital transformation are twins that cannot be separated at the strategic level. It is the twin transformation of digitalisation and sustainability that is on the agenda in all industrial societies today.

What role can and should politics play in this?

AB: Parliamentary State Secretary Christian Kühn also participated in the conference on behalf of BMUV. He quite rightly emphasised the interaction between government and business, which has already contributed important ideas for the implementation of the CDR Code. From his point of view, government faces a twofold task: On the one hand, it should see itself as a pacesetter for sustainable, socio-ecological change and create a good regulatory framework for this, but on the other hand, it must not release companies from their responsibility towards society and the environment. BMUV State Secretary Dr. Christiane Rohleder, who was also present, called for more companies to take up the issue of CDR now. The reports presented also offered assistance and orientation towards this end. They contain many suggestions for companies that have so far shied away from it for reasons of time or cost.

FE: The points of contact for other companies result from the fact that the reports are very practically oriented. This aspect is particularly pleasing from my point of view: there is a lot in there that has not been publicized so far - for example, how CDR can be integrated into companies in such a way that it is understood and accepted as a permanent task by both management and all employees. A whole series of companies are now striving to join the CDR initiative.

Can universities also do their bit to ensure that digital responsibility in business does not remain an abstract ideal?

AB: The University of Bayreuth is in fact a pioneer in the higher education landscape in this respect. Recently, our Philosophy & Economics programme celebrated its 20th anniversary. In it, we teach our students not only in theory, but also using current examples from practice, how closely entrepreneurial action is linked to ethics and social responsibility. Research, teaching, and knowledge transfer are seamlessly intertwined. Our goal is to research innovative concepts at the interface of ethics and management, to integrate them into teaching, and ultimately to transfer them into business practice. These transfers from science to business are also what the iLab Ethics & Management, which I direct, is all about.

FE: In recent years, I have worked with companies from a wide range of industries - both on issues of social and ecological responsibility and with regard to the rapidly advancing phenomena of digitalisation and Big Data. So, I can say from experience that ethics is booming. With its Philosophy & Economics programme, the University of Bayreuth is ideally positioned to advance the discussion of the business ethics issues at hand. It is time for research to face up to the real challenges, and explore solutions together with government, companies, and civil society.

About the CDR conference and the company reports presented there:

Recordings of the 2022 CDR Conference:

Press release by the Federal Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection of 28 June 2022:

CDR reports for downloading:

Prof. Dr. Dr. Alexander Brink

Prof. Dr. Dr. Alexander BrinkChair of Business Ethics University of Bayreuth

Frank Esselmann

Dr. Frank EsselmannDr. Frank Esselmann concern GmbH, Köln

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