Among the topics to be addressed at the three-day conference: socially responsible downsizing, improving human rights in developing countries, and making corporate social-responsibility strategies pay off on Wall Street.

Bob Dunn, the business group’s chief executive officer, says its goal is to “help people get their arms around social responsibility.”

These are efforts that many companies didn’t think about much a decade ago, says Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chairman and the conference’s keynote speaker.

“The shift, I believe, is that the consumer has begun, over … a number of years, to perform an audit on what a company stands for in terms of its culture, its practices and the way it interacts with the people it serves,” Schultz says.

Schultz says Starbucks’ philosophy long has been “a fragile balance” of turning profits while also being socially conscious – a happy medium that many who attend the conference are trying to find, Dunn says.

The nonprofit group – founded about 10 years ago by companies such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield Farms – has grown considerably. At this year’s conference, companies that are typically the target of social activists – such as Nike, The Gap and Chevron – are scheduled to listen to speeches that address the agendas of their traditional foes.

But very few of those activists will be on hand for the conference – about 75 percent of the participants represent businesses. An $800 to $1,500 admission fee left some activists feeling excluded, but Dunn defended the pricing.

“We need to put some cap on participation in order to preserve some of the community we want to create,” he says.

The company does invite some activists, he says, but aims to build a community of corporations talking among themselves.

“I guess I’d say I’m skeptically optimistic,” says Alan Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch and an invited panelist.

Durning says it’s better to see large corporations talking about these issues than not. But he’s frustrated by the contradictions he sees in many of their stances.

For example, Ford recently began publishing a self-critical annual report on how it can be more socially and environmentally conscious, but it still makes the largest gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle in the country.

“I guess the end-of-the-day question is, ‘Is it good enough?’ ” Durning says of such efforts.

Others are much more critical. David Ortman, whose Northwest Corporate Accountability Project encourages investors to make more socially responsible the companies they own stock in, calls such conferences an example of the “green-curtain approach.”

In that scenario, companies create social responsibility that looks like pretty green leaves, but they fail to address the roots of environmental and social problems.

He worries that efforts like Business for Social Responsibility are posturing.

“There’s just no doubt that corporations, because of their misbehaviors, have been caught in the spotlight and as a result are feeling marketing pressure to shift focus off themselves,” he says.

Dunn says the organization and the companies it works with have enacted important, long-lasting practices, and he notes a dozen examples of how companies improved the way they treat their employees, the environment or their community. But he won’t reveal specific companies, saying the group wants to protect its privacy.

Group organizers also say they fear protesters will target the conference. But Dunn says it’s important to hold this year’s conference in Seattle, where protesters effectively shut down the World Trade Organization conference two years ago.

He says such protests are valuable “because when the smoke clears and people shift their attention away from the disruption and the violence, they appreciate the tens of thousands of people … who are deeply concerned about how global trade is occurring and are determined to exert an influence.”

Advocates such as Durning remain hopeful that the conference will make a difference.

(Participants) are folks who are interested in making business a positive social force, and those folks need to be encouraged and emboldened, he says. And on the other hand, they also need to be challenged to think even bigger.