Should we call for an end to CSR? (Part 1)


As we come to terms with what is like to be relatively long-term uncertainty about the future structures and processes of our international and domestic economies, we are likely to reflect increasingly upon our own personal circumstances and lifestyles.  For many of the so-called ‘99%’, this reflection is likely to result in a range of often negative emotions – anger, frustration, blame, as well as diminishing trust of and cynicism about all but those relationships we increasingly turn to, at a community and personal level.

Add to this the impact of technology in facilitating increased transparency (given freely or not), and the ability of anyone with a mobile phone to ignite a movement (for good or ill), and we find ourselves in a time and place where any organisation, public or private needs to be able to manage its relationship with it’s audiences much more sensitively and effectively, and not just at a ‘corporate’ level.

So what has this to do with CSR?

First  let’s start with a Wikipedia definition, which by dint of the subject may be a little longwinded; but bear with me.

” Corporate social responsibility (CSR, also called corporate conscience, corporate citizenship, social performance, or sustainable responsible business) is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. CSR policy functions as a built-in, self-regulating mechanism whereby business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of the law, ethical standards, and international norms. The goal of CSR is to embrace responsibility for the company’s actions and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere. Furthermore, CSR-focused businesses would proactively promote the Public Interest (PI) by encouraging community growth and development, and voluntarily eliminating practices that harm the public sphere, regardless of legality. CSR is the deliberate inclusion of PI into corporate decision making that is the core business of the company or firm, and the honouring of a triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. ”

Not surprisingly, given it’s source, this seems a wide-ranging definition, and one where different organisations may focus or live-up to to varying degrees, and in different ways.

I would argue that the ‘responsibility’ element is an acknowledgement of the potential for large organisations to have a disproportionate effect on people and the planet.  With ‘responsibility’ comes accountability, and organisations are being increasingly brought to task in our web-enabled societies.  Responsibility has its root in ‘respond’, that it is to say that it is reactionary by nature.  The question is is it a response to the potential for public outrage or complaint, or a genuine reaction of corporate conscience or awareness of sustainability issues.

It’s clear that the value of CSR agenda has been embraced and is practiced actively by many companies, but one may ask what is the motivation behind this.

– Is the development of such policies to balance out the questionable with something good?

– Is it driven by the recognition that making into onto one of the various Corporate Sustainability world rankings (e.g. the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, or Corporate Knights, Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World) can add billions of dollars to a company’s stock value?

What is revealing is that the rankings are based upon indexing against a base of all submitting companies. Interestingly a strong element that effects how a company does in most of these rankings is its willingness and ability to fill in the questionnaires in full.  Hence being transparent can carry as much weight as acting responsibly.

Little wonder then that there is alot of skepticism as to their merit.

Christine Arena points out that there is no single accepted definition of CSR, which makes discussion, and especially consensus, very difficult.

“According to a study published by Wiley InterScience, there are approximately thirty-seven different definitions of CSR floating about the business world. This problem is compounded by dozens of competing CSR or sustainability-related measurement and certification programs. Do well-meaning corporations adopt Cradle-to-Cradle or B-Corp standards? Should they join the Global Compact or Social Accountability 8000? DoFair Trade or Ethical Trade models make the bigger difference? Who knows?” 

Many are wondering when CSR industry lists will get around to rewarding companies for creating positive value rather than merely mitigating risk. Martin Smith, founder and CEO of CSR industry website Just Means believes

“These lists should showcase companies that are helping us innovative away from industries like oil, vertically integrated agriculture, and so forth,” 

Campbell Soup’s Dave Stangis agrees:

“I think the lists of the future are going to have to better address the issue of strategic opportunity. The real question is: can we finally come up with a list that rewards companies for producing products and services that meet unmet [social and environmental] needs, rather than just minimizing potential damage?” 

– Or is it likely that as a result of events over the last 5 years, we have, at a personal and corporate level, become more aware of the consequences of our actions, and of course the actions of ‘others’? We are living through what the Futures Company call “the Era of Consequences” where we are more likely to question many of our once innate decisions, rather than carry on as before.

Or something else? (Your ideas are welcome).

Whilst historically the growth of CSR may have been based on the second of the motivations there is a sense that it is moving more towards Corporate Sustainability, which as Wikipedia points out

” Is derived from two keys sources. The Brundtland Commission‘s Report – Our Common Future that described sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This desire to grow without damaging future generations’ prospects is becoming more and more central to business philosophies.

Within more academic management circles Elkington (1999) developed the concept of the Triple Bottom Line that proposed that business goals were inseparable from the societies and environments within which they operate. Whilst short-term economic gain could be chased, a failure to account for social and environmental impacts would make those business practices unsustainable”.

So in this climate, let’s consider what are the consequences of organisations pursuing CSR policies that have been born in a different era, and which may not be so fit for purpose going forward.

I sense that some of the social and cultural changes we are seeing are not merely a series of once unrelated events that have stimulated each other because of our increased interconnectivity. The events of the Arab Spring, the spread of the ‘Occupy’ movement are possibly symptomatic of the beginnings of a change of attitude amongst people who are no longer willing to be merely bystanders.

Organisations like 38 degrees, whose strapline is People, Power, Change, have sprung up in the UK as a response to a frustration with both what has and is happening, and the need for change.

“We are a community of UK citizens who act together to create an avalanche for change. We work together in our hundreds of thousands to defend fairness, protect rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy. 38 Degrees is independent of all political parties. We are funded by donations from thousands of 38 Degrees members, and do not accept money from political parties, government or big business. Our independence means that we can campaign on issues that 38 Degrees members feel passionately about and that we decide on together. We are driven by issues and outcomes, and judge all politicians by the same standards regardless of what party they belong to”.

The FearLess Revolution in the US was started by a group that includes Alex Bogusky (a co-founder of Crispin Porter Bogusky) ‘explores a new relationship between people and brands’.

“We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the way business is done towards more transparency, more collaboration, more democracy, and ultimately more value”.

Similarly Good, again in the US describes itself thus:

“In a world where things too often don’t work, GOOD seeks a path that does. Left, right. In, out. Greed, altruism. Us, them. These are the defaults and they are broken. We are the alternative model. We are the reasonable people who give a damn. No dogma. No party lines. No borders. We care about what works–what is sustainable, prosperous, productive, creative, and just–for all of us and each of us. This isn’t easy, but we are not afraid to fail. We’ll figure it out as we go.

Call it a new party, call it a 21st century collaboration, call it an army, call it your new home. Or just call it GOOD.

We are people, businesses, moms, kids, artists, organizations, policymakers, students, teachers, and engineers. All united in one simple idea, each elevated by being connected. Let’s do what works and never default to what doesn’t. Join us, and together we’ll power what works”.

What all of these organisations have in common, and they are by no means alone, is an acknowledgement that change is necessary and they each have their own take on how this can be addressed. And interestingly they see that a very major component of this change is ‘collaboration’.  Up until recently this has presented itself as collaboration within particular interest groups with a desire to do things differently and to create change themselves.

The ‘Occupy’ Movement though looks like it may be a catalyst that is getting groups to collaborate across groups (something the corporate world might either a. learn from, or b. make more visible).

Witness these 2 examples from the FearLess blog.

The first is a collaborative response to the lack of coverage the Occupy Movement is getting from US established media

And the second shows how the Occupy movement is reaching out to the wider community to discuss and collaborate on their agenda and prioritising aims and objectives.  

So looking forward  it seems obvious that we need to respond to what Christine Arena  calls “the new reality” (facing CSR). This is likely to mean that we have to not just consider  some new terminology but some new perspectives and practices.

At an event instigated by the Wall Street Journal, “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility” one of the panel, Campbell Soup’s Dave Stangis observed

“This isn’t a debate about right or wrong, winning or losing. For me, it’s about changing the world, one company at a time – or sitting on the outside describing why that can’t happen.”

I have a few ideas of my own, which I hope to cover in the next post. Terms like Corporate Social Cooperation, Corporate Social Conscience, maybe even Corporate Social Kindness.  They may be things already practiced by dome organisations, but is there any value to be gained by at least using these as reference points for our thinking?  One thing is for sure; some companies may feel they can merely use them as terms to describe what motivates their actions.  But as ever the proof is in the doing, not words.

Do you have any thoughts on new terminology/perspectives that might move the forward CSR agenda, in our changing world?

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