Friday, December 19, 2008

C..hristmas S..eason R..eflections

Now that we're all winding down (or is it winding up?) for the festive season, as a CSR person (whatever that is) I find myself being revisted by the three "ghosts of Christmas past", whose names are Commercialism, Consumerism and Complicity.

The ghost Commericalism is the unease I feel with the way Christmas is trivialised by business, turning sacred symbols into marketing gimmicks and the Christmas message into catchy jingles. The ghost Consumerism, clearly a close relation to Commercialism, is the shopping frenzy that business whips up around buying Christmas gifts, with the disturbing subtext that we need to buy happiness/love/freedom from guilt. The ghost Complicity is the most disquieting of all, reminding me that I am part of this circus of materialism - I buy into it, literally, even if it makes me uncomfortable.

Is it only CSR professionals who are visited by the 3-C Christmas ghosts, I wonder? And what do I think is the responsible thing to do anyway? Am I suggesting commercial suicide ("hey guys, time to close shop, Christmas is coming!")? Clearly not. Am I suggesting family warfare ("sorry kids, no presents this year; it's for you own good, I promise!")? Not that either.  And what about personal ascetism ("gosh, this seems like a good time to become a monk!")? I think not. Scrooge is not really my style.

For me, I guess a "sustainable and responsible" Christmas is all about consciousness. Not Zen-chanting, cloud-surfing consciousness. More like "drifting in awareness". Being conscious of what I'm buying, for who and why. Being conscious of all the "invisible gifts" of Christmas - spending time with loved ones, taking time out to reflect, remembering the message of the child. And also being conscious that more than half the world's population doesn't celebrate Christmas, and for several billion people, it will be the gift of life - of clean water, health, safety and warmth - that they will be hoping for. I'm not suggesting that we all sink into a Christmas depression; simply that we count our blessings and be aware of what Christmas is all about.

So it only leaves me to wish you all, friends and colleagues in the CSR community, a Conscious Christmas. I hope you return in the New Year as passionate and energised as ever to make a positive difference in the world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Health as a Human Right

I’ve been meaning to write up a few scribbled lines from the interesting lunch session I attended last week entitled ‘health as a human right’ at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The event focused on how the international community has begun to consider the ‘highest attainable standard of health’ as a fundamental component of the human rights agenda. The discussion touched on a range of ethical issues from the corporate responsibility of pharmaceuticals companies to more concrete matters of policy and law. Indeed, it seems logical to make a short posting on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has deservedly got a fair bit of attention today (even if it's late in NYC!)

The Carnegie Council regularly offers great events and generally invite excellent guests to speak. This time was no exception with a panel featuring Christian Barry (Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics), Meg Boulware (Baker & McKenzie), Laura Herman (FSG Social Impact Advisors), Maggie Kohn (Merck), Rohit Malpani (Oxfam America), Lisa Oldring (Special Advisor to Mary Robinson). There were some interesting comments and I have very briefly touched upon one useful suggestion made in the text below. Fortunately, the Carnegie Council does a good job of videoing their events - the full discussion can be seen by clicking here:

Pharmaceuticals companies have come under plenty of scrutiny for their CSR policies and the access to medicine debate has been around for a long time in policy circles (now we even have an index, which came out earlier this year). Responsibilities in this area are grey, as acknowledged at this event by the top CSR Officer at Merck, which is considered a leader in the field. In terms of medicines, their policies are predicated on the principles of availability, quality, access, and affordability. It's the last two aspects that have been a huge bone of contention. On access they have made great strides (such as their policy on patents in Least Developed Counties) but the issue of price continues to be a hot issue, as eloquently highlighted by the Oxfam representative.

One particularly interesting recommendation from the session actually came from Merck. Essentially, the proposition was for stakeholders (donor organizations, governments, pharmaceuticals) to come together to work on a list of principles in terms of a right to health, perhaps working with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to develop a series of indicator in this area for all organizations to work upon. While the GRI guidelines have their critics, I think the process of collaborative action itself is incredibly valuable and a way needs to be found for such work to be taken forward by industry leaders. While much greater consideration from all sides is still required, such an opportunity is too important not to take.

Institute of Green Professionals: Honorary Fellow

I have just received notification that I have been nominated as an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Green Professionals (IGP), which:

"Recognizes individuals for outstanding accomplishments in the sustainability sphere that are considered either a single contribution of theory, design, or technique of outstanding significance or the accumulation of important contributions on theory or practice over an extended time period, the total of which represent an outstanding contribution."

Phew! Quite a mouthful! But of course much appreciated. Thanks IGP!

For more information on the IGP, go to:

CSR/sustainability experts on hope and 2009 prospects

Last night I was at the Science Museum in London attending the 20th Anniversary alumni celebrations of the University of Cambridge Programme for Industry (CPI - where I am a Senior Associate and was formerly Research Director).

The evening included an introductory speech by Director, Polly Courtice. Then we showed a little film (on a BIG Imax screen). The film included extracts from interviews I conducted with Joseph Stiglitz, George Monbiot, Hunter Lovins, Elizabeth Economy, Mohammad Yunus and Jeffrey Sachs. These interviews are the basis of two books that I am writing, which will be published in 2009.

Following the film was a panel discussion comprising John Elkington (Founder, SustainAbility and Volans Ventures), Emma Howard-Boyd (Director, Juipiter Asset Management), Doug Parr (Chief Scientist, Greenpeace UK) and Jonathon Porritt (Founder, Forum for the Future). They were asked to speak about what made them hopeful about the future.

John was placing his bets on social entrepreneurs, Emma commented on substantial growth in SRI in the past year (suggesting that it may be up to 20% of all investments by 2015 if memory serves), Doug cited victories in stalling a new UK nuclear plant and airport runway and Jonathon was putting his faith in a grassroots upswell (and his hopes for Barack Obama).

I would be lying if I said it was an entirely upbeat discussion. John sees the next 7 or 8 years of recession being very bleak and creating serious (and painful) discontinuities, Doug despairs over multilateral policy processes like Poznan and Jonathon thinks the scope for business to make serious progress in the current policy climate is extremely limited.

What all seemed to agree, however, is that 2009 will be an extremely challenging and exciting year for all of us working in CSR and sustainability. Their unified plea was for us to focus on the strategic, systemic reforms, rather than fiddling around the edges with incremental change. And speaking of strategic initiatives, if you haven't yet seen the Posnan Communique, signed by 140 global businesses, check it out at:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Long Tail of CSR

I recently read The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson and it started me thinking: What is the Long Tail of CSR? 

The Long Tail – named after the extended tail of a statistical distribution curve - is the idea that selling less to more people is big business. It’s the business model that has spawned the most successful companies of the Web 2.0 age. The Long Tail questions the conventional wisdom that says success is about generating ‘blockbusters’ and ‘superstars’ – those rare few products and services that become runaway bestsellers.

Anderson sums up his message by saying that: 1) the tail of available variety is longer than we think; 2) it’s now within reach economically; and 3) all those niches, when aggregated, can make up a significant market. He also notes that this Long Tail revolution has been made possible by the digital age, which has dramatically reduced the costs of customised production and niche distribution.

There are three enablers of successful long tail businesses, according to Anderson: 1) democratising the tools of production (e.g. digi-cams, content editing software, blogging tools); 2) democratising the tools of distribution (e.g. Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Netflix); and 3) connecting supply and demand (e.g. Google, blogs, Rotten Tomatoes).

So how might this apply to CSR? To me, the Long Tail of CSR is all about extending the reach of CSR, and improving its ability to satisfy specific social and environmental needs. Let’s use Anderson’s enablers as a framework for thinking about this ...

Democratising the tools of CSR production

This is about breaking CSR silos and extending CSR beyond multinationals. At the early stages of CSR adoption, it is often confined to Public Relations, Corporate Affairs or Marketing departments. As CSR implementation matures, responsibility tends to migrate to specialised CSR departments of various descriptions (environment, health & safety, accountability, corporate citizenship, etc.). However, these versions of CSR are like the Hollywood model of blockbuster films. They suggest that CSR is about a few, high visibility programmes that are designed by CSR experts and delivered by big companies.

By contract, democratising CSR production would be mean firstly embedding CSR across the organisation – making it the responsibility of operations managers, financial managers, shop floor workers, basically everyone. This is only possible if CSR becomes part of the culture and incentive systems of an organisation. Secondly, CSR would need to be extended beyond the usual suspects (i.e. the high profile, branded multinationals) to the less visible B2Bs (business to business), to national (rather than multinational) organisations, to SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises), and down the supply chain (as WalMart is now most famously doing).

Democratising the tools of CSR distribution

To date, CSR has mainly be ‘distributed’ via a few select projects – typically philanthropic or charitable activities – in which the company offers its help to the ‘less fortunate masses’. Usually, the nature and scope of CSR activities is determined top-down and offered as a fairly undifferentiated ‘service’, e.g. Nike might decide to focus on sponsoring sports teams, events and celebrities and Coca-Cola might choose water as its key CSR issue. The most common delivery mechanisms are money (sponsorship and other forms of charity), or for the more advanced companies, adhering to generic CSR codes and standards.

By contrast, democratising the tools of CSR distribution should include allowing staff to participate in CSR delivery through volunteer programmes, and developing more geographically tailored and sector-specific CSR codes and standards, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines for HIV/Aids reporting. Beyond this, embracing Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) markets and supporting social entrepreneurs will allow the reach of CSR to be extended so that the needs of formerly unserved or underserved people can be met.

Connecting CSR Supply and Demand

Traditionally, CSR has been offered in the form of grants by multinational head-offices, who control the budget and set the criteria by which prospective philanthropic projects should be selected. For the more advanced companies, this has been extended to adherence by their operations to corporate codes of CSR practice and communicating this through CSR reports. Demand has typically come from community groups applying to corporate foundations for funding, or NGOs taking an activist approach to demanding improved CSR practices.

By contrast, connecting the Long Tail of CSR supply and demand will rely increasingly on cross-sector partnerships and multi-stakeholder groups. For example, Rio Tinto may work with the Word Conservation Union to identify biodiversity needs and satisfy them through appropriate CSR activities. Companies may also use extended stakeholder networks of community groups, social entrepreneurs and microcredit enterprises to better match their capacity to make a positive impact among those who can most benefit, as BP is doing with smokeless stoves in India and SC Johnson is doing with cleaning products in Kenya.


 To conclude, applying the Long Tail concept to CSR requires a different way of thinking about how CSR is generated, delivered and managed. It means making CSR a more inclusive and embedded process within the company, and a more diverse and far-reaching set of activities outside the company. It also means creating meaningful stakeholder partnerships to ensure that the right kinds of CSR benefit the right groups of people, where and when they need it.

The Long Tail in a nutshell, according to Anderson, is: “culture unfiltered by scarcity”. By extension, the Long Tail of CSR in a nutshell is: “responsibility liberated by collaboration”.

To download this think-piece as a pdf, go to:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

EIU: Corporate Citizenship....profiting from a sustainable business strategy

In case you missed it, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently published a report which is well worth a read. It discusses the motivation for corporate citizenship, suggests how it can help improve the bottom line, and proposes that having a well-designed corporate citizenship program can be a competitive advantage.

The link to the free report is here:

Monday, December 1, 2008

CSR and the financial crisis

Earlier today I attended a lunchtime event organized by Net Impact and hosted by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) on the topic of CSR and the financial crisis. The impressive panel featured Prof Geoff Heal (Columbia Business School), Kara Hartnett Hurst (Business for Social Responsibility), Prof Jenik Radon (SIPA) and Aaron Hurst (Taproot Foundation). Below are a couple of quick points made during the discussion - please see the podcast section of for the full commentary which I expect to be made available shortly.

Prof Geoff Heal suggested that there isn’t a great deal of historical data relating to the impact assessment of a recession on CSR
policies and practices. Unsurprisingly, it was presumed that profits will be harder to come by in such times, but where CSR is embedded and contributes toward the bottom line, we can expect such policies to subsist; yet if these practices relate more toward PR or philanthropy, one might predict more reduced roles. Invariably, some firms will fall into each of these categories. It was suggested that Business 2 Consumer CSR (especially if tied to brand value) would be less impacted than Business 2 Business CSR, where some cutbacks might well be anticipated, which is somewhat of a moot point. He did however suggest that there is some evidence to suggest that, in an increasingly competitive environment, CSR policies can actually contribute to greater profits (such as in retail). 

Kara Hartnett Hurst suggested that business at BSR is booming, which is indeed indicative. Again, those companies with more integrated CSR programs weren’t cutting back given they have recognized their investment in, and the value of, CSR to a variety of stakeholders. She also noted how there has been a relative increase in the recognition and confidence of CSR given how it is associated with better governance structures and longer term shareholder value. That said, it was acknowledged, more generally, that business conditions are not good and that ‘flat is the new up' - but while reductions are happening, CSR has been less visibly impacted. 

Aaron Hurst highlighted several drivers that will promote further change in CSR over the next months, including the next administration. It was acknowledged, however, that financial philanthropy might well be cutback in this tough economic climate but conversely, increasingly people had their time to offer (he added that it was perhaps because they no longer had a job!).

The commentary was pretty broad ranging yet there were some interesting points of view from the panel on the financial bailout, as well as various recommendations for the incoming Obama team. Overall, the discussion was worth listening to, if you can find the opportunity.