Saturday, October 24, 2009

The CSR Media Boom: We Got What We Deserve

Having just spent a morning reading the latest issue of Time magazine (one of my favourite mags, when I get a chance to read it), it really got me thinking about how far the world has moved since I started out in my CSR/sustainability career nearly 20 years ago.

20 years ago, finding credible media coverage on environmental or social responsibility was like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Now CSR/sustainability issues are the haystack. For example, in this week's Time, there are stories on:
  • The President of the Maldives and his Cabinet holding an underwater meeting to urge UN leaders to pass climate change legislation in Copenhagen in December
  • California's "new gold rush", namely its scramble to be the world's clean-tech leaders, making the state "America's future"
  • Research showing how the least healthy cereals do the most marketing, i.e. questioning the ethics of advertising & greenwash
  • How jellyfish are taking over in overfished, fertilizer polluted areas of the sea and "shifting from a fish to a jellyfish ocean"
  • How China is fast becoming the world's largest alternative energy markets - including hydro, solar and wind power.
  • Booming barter schemes - including the Barter Card - that allow cashless exchange during the recession (a movement long advocated by so-called "new economics" types)
  • And how "our obsession with gross domestic product is unhealthy - and misleading" (another pillar of the new economics and sustainability movements)
I remember Stuart Hart, Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell and author of "Capitalism at the Crossroads", joking with me last year that "we got what we deserved", meaning that we were crying for change all those years, and now we have so much that it's hard to keep pace.

That's true. My inbox is awash with daily CSR & sustainability stories - no longer tucked away in specialist publications, but making headlines on the front pages of the world's conservative business and news press. Quite simply, the social and environmental challenges - and solutions - have become so dramatic that "green is the new black", so to speak.

Now the challenge for those of us working in the R&S (responsibility and sustainability) space is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which issues being reported are noise and which are genuine breakthroughs? Which solutions are peripheral chatter and which are scalable game-changers?

Whichever way you look at it, this is an exciting time to be in the thick of the R&S revolution. It's a privilege to be part of making a real difference in the world - at a time when nothing less will do. And yes, Stu, it's what we deserve, in more ways than one.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

CSR for SMEs: Lessons from Mexico

In a country where more than 95% of businesses are micro-enterprises, how do you make CSR relevant? Well, you start by replacing the corporate C with an enterprising E. In Mexico, as in all of Latin America, CSR translates as RSE - Responsabilidad Social Empresarial, or Social Responsibility for Enterprises.

You also figure out how to turn social, environmental and ethical responsibilities into a business model, rather than a peripheral add-on. This is what the IDEARSE Centre for Enterprise Sustainability & Responsibility at Anauhuac University has done, as part of the government's SME Accelerator programme (Aceleradora de Negocios IDEA-AnĂ¡huac).

I had the chance to learn more about this pioneering programme at the 7th International CSR Conference in Mexico City on 9 October 2009, hosted by COMPITE in partnership with IDEARSE, among others, where I was delivering the keynote address on "The Future of CSR".

The IDEARSE Acceleration Business Model - which strives to support businesses growth through a CSR business administration model that develops competitive advantage - is based on 6 principles: Self regulation (governance), human rights, stakeholder engagement, labour responsibility, environment (eco-efficiency) and social & community impact.

Working with this framework, IDEARSE takes SMEs through an 18 month process of establishing baseline performance, completing a CSR diagnostic, doing a gap analysis, coming up with an action plan, executing it, establishing a new baseline, evaluating impacts and writing up the case study. To date, 76 SMEs have been taken through the process.

What is the result? SMEs that scored an average of 23% on IDEARSE's comprehensive CSR diagnostic before the intervention almost doubled their CSR performance to 43%. Some of the biggest improvements were on self regulation/governance (17% to 48%), process improvement (26% to 47%) and stakeholder engagement (32% to 52%).

Importantly, improvements also show up on the bottom line. The SMEs in the Acceleration programme showed a 30% annual sales growth, and 19% growth in employment, creating 675 new jobs (pre-financial crisis). This is an iterative model, so once the first round of actions have been implemented, the cycle is repeated, leading to continuous improvement.

In developed countries, we have become arrogant about being leaders in CSR. But I believe that many of the most interesting and important innovations - like the IDEARSE Business Acceleration Model - are happening in developing countries. To give another example, Mexico is one of the only countries I know that has a national certifiable CSR standard.

It is time to recognise that CSR is no longer a standardised, Western concept. It has globalised, and as it has done so, it has diversified to meet the needs of the countries, cultures and communities where it finds itself. This is good news. We must hang onto universal CSR principles, but learn to let go of any pre-conceived ideas of what CSR must look like in practice. For to really change the world, CSR first has to become a grassroots movement.


For more information about the IDEARSE Business Acceleration Model, contact Jorge Reyes-Iturbide on