Friday, March 16, 2012

How Reliable is Corporate Social Responsibility?

By Lorna Taylor

Pressure is increasing on large organisations to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability across the three pillars of economic performance, social equity and environmental protection. There are many good stories of CSR in practice, but many others are undermining the principles of CSR.

Think back 15 years. The organic and fair-trade industries were small niche markets for dedicated sustainability enthusiasts. Nowadays they are found in every major supermarket with a huge following.

However, along with this boom in sustainability and CSR came ‘greenwash’ - “disinformation disseminated by an organisation, so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” The term greenwash may now be outdated but the problem remains; it encompasses not just misleading environmental claims but also ethical and social ones.

Time and again we hear how large organisations that have caused social or environmental damage rapidly take up new CSR initiatives to counteract the bad press and encourage perceptions of ‘good’ corporate citizenship. But CSR should not be a cover up, or a PR tool; it should be embedded in the organisation at every level. Corporate actions need to match CSR claims.

Christian Aid in 2004 named and shamed large organisations involved in greenwash, revealing CSR projects that were misleadingly marketed as ‘the right thing’, when in fact they were not feasible; unsuccessful or detrimental to local communities. Commenting on Shell in the oil producing region of the Niger Delta, their report states, “The region is now a veritable graveyard of projects, including water systems that do not work, health centres that have never opened and schools where no lesson has been taught.”

CSR should be about companies outlining their social and environmental goals and committing to follow through. However, there is very little independent regulation to monitor such commitments. Should governments control companies’ efforts through increased legislation, or in the true spirit of CSR, should organisations be regulating themselves? Unfortunately, whilst self-regulation may be preferable, it does not always occur. Corporate statements of CSR no longer guarantee good practice.

Greenwash is not always deliberate; laziness and ignorance are common causes. CSR, or sustainability, is a difficult term to define and definitions tend to be vague due to its broad nature. Stakeholders have adapted and moulded the CSR concept to work for them; but ulterior motives have also resulted in confusion, greenwashing and the compromise of long-term sustainability goals.

Despite some progress, governmental regulation and political action is required to rebuild faith in the concept and monitor CSR delivery. Sustainability in its current form is not sustainable. CSR needs to evolve, becoming more accountable and embedded in core societal changes in order to provide truly sustainable benefits for society.

Accountability is the key to addressing the issue of greenwashing and ensuring that CSR is sustainable. Corporate Social Responsibility has to grow into Corporate Social Accountability, measuring the impact of actions, not just what actions have been taken.


Christian Aid, 2004. Behind The Mask: The real face of Corporate Social Responsibility

Jim MacNeill, 2007. Our Common Future: Advance or Retreat? Sustainable Development: A New Urgency. Geneva: EcoLomics International.

John Drexhage and Deborah Murphy, 2010. Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

Futerra Sustainability Communications, 2008. The Greenwash Guide

Sustainable development Innovation Briefs, Issue 1, February 2007, “CSR and Developing Countries: what scope for government action?”