Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Three Curses of CSR: Curse 2 - Peripheral Status

Curse 2: Peripheral CSR

Ask any CSR manager what their greatest frustration is and they will tell you: lack of top management commitment. This is ‘code-speak’ for saying that CSR is, at best, a peripheral function in most companies.

There may be a CSR manager, a CSR department even, a CSR report and a public commitment to any number of CSR codes and standards. But these do little to mask the underlying truth that shareholder-driven capitalism is rampant and its obsession with short-term financial measures of progress is contradictory in almost every way to the long-term, stakeholder approach needed for high-impact CSR.

The reason Enron collapsed, and indeed why our current financial crisis was allowed to spiral out of control, was not because of a few rogue executives or creative accounting practices, it was because of a culture of greed embedded in the DNA of the company and the financial markets.

Joel Baken (author of The Corporation) goes so far as to suggest that companies are legally bound to act like psychopaths. Whether you agree or not (and despite the emerging research on ‘responsible competitiveness’), it is hard to find any substantive examples in which the financial markets reward responsible behaviour.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Three Curses of CSR: Curse 1 - Incrementalism

Why has CSR failed so spectacularly to address the very issues it claims to be most concerned about? This comes down to three factors – the Three Curses of CSR, if you like:

Curse 1: Incremental CSR

One of the great revolutions of the 1970s was total quality management, conceived by American statistician W. Edwards Deming, perfected by the Japanese and exported around the world as ISO 9001. At the very core of Deming’s TQM model and the ISO standard is continual improvement, a principle that has now become ubiquitous in all management system approaches to performance. No surprise, therefore, that the most popular environmental management standard, ISO 14001, is also built on the same principle.

There is nothing wrong with continuous improvement per se. On the contrary, it has brought safety and reliability to the very products and services that we associate with modern quality of life. But when we use it as the primary approach to tackling our social, environmental and ethical challenges, it fails on two critical counts: speed and scale. The incremental approach of CSR, while replete with evidence of micro-scale, gradual improvements, has completely and utterly failed to make any impact on the massive sustainability crises that we face, many of which are getting worse at a pace that far outstrips any futile CSR-led attempts at amelioration.

Curse 2 to follow ...