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Corporate social responsibility isn't just a public relations ploy

The latest pollution scandal involving Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE) has come as a shock to the nation not because pollution by factories is anything new in Taiwan, but because ASE is such a big company.

ASE is the biggest semiconductor packaging and testing firm in the world, with annual revenues of over NT$200 billion. Like many other major companies, ASE claims that it attaches paramount importance to fulfilling what the world of business calls corporate social responsibility (CSR).

In this era of heightened environmental awareness, protecting the environment is an important part of CSR, particularly for the manufacturing sector of the electronics industry, whose manufacturing processes usually produce toxic waste.

We would usually believe that companies the size of ASE would be happy and willing to devote a tiny portion of their revenues to fulfill CSR obligations. But the latest revelations at ASE's Kaohsiung plants, accused of intentionally discharging untreated toxic wastewater, have shown that such a belief might only be wishful thinking.

It seems to have instead brought us back to the hard reality of the world of business, in which growth, revenues, profits and responsibility to investors take priority.

Anything else — protecting the environment, contributing to charity, community relations and other social responsibilities — takes the backseat. Efforts in those directions may simply be public relations work to make the company look better or even greenwashed lies to conceal their dirty linen.

Is that right? We are not asking companies to give CSR priority over business, but at least they have to strike a balance between them.

We know that operating a business in Taiwan's electronics industry is tough. Competition among domestic peers and from rivals in China and other countries is intense; clients are always looking for lower costs; consumers in the end market are always looking for better yet cheaper products. But that doesn't mean that they have to sacrifice the environment.

We need changes which must be forced onto the world of business externally and internally.

Governments must come down hard on rogue businesses. There must be stringent laws curbing pollution and punishing polluters.

But we must also ask how much punishment is enough to scare rogue companies.

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