So what happened?
The short answer is not enough. As the CR movement spread to the corporate mainstream, it lost its focus. What started as a relatively simple set of goals to protect the environment and human rights degenerated into a philanthropic free-for-all in which causes proliferated and an ever-expanding array of do-good choices and options presented itself to business management teams who were already on confusing ground. Corporate executives who saw the need for CR failed to adequately help their staffs translate their vision into action, and public expectations about what was truly important were misunderstood or not understood at all. The resulting disconnect between what was needed and what actually got done neutered too many promising efforts.
At the same time, countless companies did what companies do: They created an office or a department to deal with CR and told it to grow CR initiatives. But this compartmentalized approach had the effect of decoupling innumerable CR agendas from their company’s actually daily workings and left programs trapped “inside the box” where nothing meaningful could happen.
In other cases, companies simply co-opted CR for their own purposes. This “greenwashing” was all about hype and appearance rather than honesty and action, and too many firms simply sought CR window dressing to help them look better in an increasingly informed world. They released fancy reports with pretty pictures. They had their CEOs photographed at CR conferences and summits. They purchased smaller more legitimately responsible companies for their halo effect and little more. But very rarely did they walk their talk.
Ironically, forces like these resulted in the one thing that CR supporters and naysayers can agree on: Corporate responsibility in its present incarnation has been an enormous disappointment at best. It has not lifted people out of poverty. It has not protected the environment. It has not boosted community wellbeing. It has been too little, too late and at most has succeeded in getting some companies to aspire to simply do less damage than they did before. Instead of changing the world, CR merely evolved into a baseline requirement in every company’s license to operate. Where it succeeded, it only managed to slow the rate of decay, which is hardly enough to do much more than maintain the status quo.
This, say CR’s detractors, is proof that the movement’s fundamental ideal—that a business can remake itself so as to create an overwhelming net benefit for society and the environment in addition to its own bottom line—is not a valid model for moving forward and tackling the extremely big issues we now need to address.
But that’s wrong, and in this book, Wayne Visser shows us not only why but where we go from here. CR remains a valid approach ripe with promise and possibility. Yet as Visser quite importantly notes, this reaffirmation is dependent on the emergence of a new form of CR that takes a far more holistic view of its work and seeks not to affect piecemeal change but to engineer a series of systemic corrections that wisely recognize that since all our problems are connected our solutions must be, too. The job of CR advocates is to pull these new values into every last corner of the world’s companies in order to impact each process and decision, and deliver a return on purpose as well as a return on investment.
Jeffrey Hollender is former CEO and co-founder of Seventh Generation, and co-author of The Responsibility Revolution
How to Order