Monday, May 11, 2009

An Agenda for the Future of CSR

I recently received my copy of “The Corporate Responsibility Movement” by Jem Bendell, et al., which includes some pieces I wrote together with him. I was struck by how relevant the chapter on “An Agenda for the Future of CSR”, which we wrote in 2005, still seems to be. So I have decided to repost it here:

We believe that the movement is at a crucial juncture. Companies have climbed the corporate social responsibility (CSR) learning curve and are now playing the game like experts. They have reframed the debate into language which they can understand and use without upsetting most of their shareholders, and they have designed policies and programs which they can implement without having to question their underlying business model.

There seems to be a pervading sense in many CSR circles that there is now business consensus about the most pressing issues in our global society, taking their cues from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Global Compact and other such frameworks. While many of the issues remain difficult to deal with in practice, companies are credited with putting strategies in place for tackling them. Everything, they argue, is going according to plan; hence, there is no need for anything more dramatic, especially not legislation to enforce improved performance. Or is there?

There is another perspective, which enjoys far less air time. A perspective that says the world is in a deepening crisis of alarming proportions and that the private sector’s response, under the guise of CSR, is as effective as placing a band aid on the foot of someone who is haemorrhaging from a head wound. This alternative perspective, radical as it sounds, nevertheless seems to be confirmed by just about every available statistic on the ecological and social health of our global society.

The question then becomes: is CSR, as it is currently being preached and practiced by multinational corporations around the world, actually a red herring? Is it a distraction from the more fundamental transformation (perhaps revolution even) of the capitalist business model which is needed? And as CSR becomes an established professional practice, will it take as given that its purpose is to benefit those who employ its professionals, rather than a primary goal of transforming the world?

If so, CSR will have contributed towards a global ‘Crash and Burn’ scenario, with growing ecological and social degradation.

Such criticism forces those of us who work on corporate responsibility issues, perhaps even identify ourselves as part of a CSR movement or a CSR profession, to reflect on our roles. Do we have a clear strategy for how we can help solve the big problems of poverty, pollution, abuse and so forth, by working with/in corporates? And if we think we are helping in small ways, do we have a plan for how to scale up our impacts to address problems which require widespread action, like climate change? Without one, might we just be pretending we are helping the planet and its people, while climbing another greasy pole? The risk here is that we all seem remarkably adept at coming up with explanations of our own behaviour and priorities that maintain an appearance of “ethicalness”… at least to ourselves. We have to find the courage to be self-critical, and explore what we are thinking and doing.

It is through this reflexivity that CSR might avoid being complicit in a global ‘Crash and Burn’ and become a crucial part of a ‘Rise and Shine’ scenario, where the world achieves a greater harmony between its peoples and with ecology. This scenario requires systemic change. For CSR to help with this systemic change, we need to embrace both idealism and realism.

Idealism is important as we must reawaken the values which underscore the CSR agenda, rather than hiding them sheepishly behind commercial arguments for action. A revival of zealous passion and moral belief as a driver of corporate change and a new intensity of questioning of the reigning business model is key.

Idealism and realism are often counterpoised, yet we need both if we are to promote systemic change. Idealism should not blind us from awareness of the limits of individual voluntary action. Some realism about markets and the law is essential. The commercial benefits from improved social and environmental performance are patchy, and many companies still make profits through externalising social and environmental costs - a process which is promoted by mainstream financial markets that still focus on short term value creation. Given this situation, the current system of governance, regulation and law enforcement is not often sufficient, as international companies can evade accountability through the use of sub-contracting and subsidiaries, while also being able to influence the processes of public governance itself, with questionable outcomes.

Extracted from “The Corporate Responsibility Movement” (2009) by Bendell, Visser, et al.