Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – bruised, battered but being reshaped now to guide a better future

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April 16, 2013

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We had the rare chance to discuss the future of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) this week, courtesy of global and socially-aware brand Kyocera Document Solutions at its London offices.

The event, produced by Be Inspired Films, Kyocera Document Solutions and Responsible 100 was part of Responsible Business Week. The sold-out event took the form of a passionate, well-informed panel discussion, with questions from the delegates, around the theme “Has CSR reached its sell-by date?”

What we at SaveMoneyCutCarbon took away from the event was that there is now an unstoppable energy for radical change in the way that companies of all sizes conduct their Corporate Responsibility duties.

The social pressures for fundamental reconstruction are intense and building by the day. What is more, there are compelling economic reasons for companies to embrace news ways of thinking and practice around CR that go way beyond just doing something worthy or nice. The scene had been set in the pre-event promotion, from Tracey Rawling Church, Head of CSR at Kyocera Document Solutions UK, and her event partners. The promotion advised: “Many of the world’s leading businesses invest considerable resources in demonstrating their CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility.

The terms used vary considerably. Some businesses prefer ‘corporate responsibility’, ‘corporate conscience’, ‘corporate citizenship’, ‘social performance’, ‘sustainability’ or even ‘future-proofing’ over CSR

“While different terminology may indicate varied approaches or emphasis, core CSR principles are that a business voluntarily commits to embracing responsibility for its actions and to impacting positively on the environment, on society and on consumers, employees and other stakeholders.

“However, critics point to the role of business in exacerbating the enormous challenges we face, such as the scarcity of natural resources, an increasingly imperilled environment, faltering prosperity and a widening wealth gap between the winners and the losers. Further, despite the increasing prominence of CSR, corporate fraud and scandal remain commonplace and public trust in business is at an all-time low.”

The impressive panel line-up comprised:

  • Graham Precey, Head of Corporate Responsibility for Legal & General Group Plc for five years;
  • Vicky Murray, Head of Sustainability at Neal’s Yard Remedies / and seven-years with sustainable development charity Forum for the Future;
  • Tim West, (panel chair), founding director of Matter&Co, the communications company behind Good Deals conferences, the SE100 Index for social businesses and Social Enterprise magazine;
  • Michael Solomon, founder and director of Responsible 100
  • and Simon Leadbetter of Blue & Green Communications Ltd, event media partner (and late replacement for Financial Times journalist Michael Skapinker)

I think that the general view from the panel was that CSR, in its current form, is reaching the end of its life in business cultures. The signs of imminent demise are that, for the panellists and the delegates, CSR cannot and does not deliver on its promise of greater corporate responsibility.

What that corporate responsibility exactly is meant a range of things to the panellists, from widening the engagement and knowledge-gathering process both within and beyond corporate walls, to making a full, open and transparent commitment to adopting ethical, sustainable business strategies at full speed.

The need to act now and change CSR fundamentally was a repeated mantra during the very lively session, although the degree of change and speed at which this would happen differed among the panel. It would take a small book to tease out all the good ideas that were shared in London and so I can only refer to a few highlights: Graham Preacey made an effective case for the need to break out of the corporate CSR silo to move into wider corporate culture and beyond, with collaboration the solution, not confrontation.

He made one particularly resonant point, that activism in organisations could be very powerful, as a general cultural rule, 15% of people are activists by nature/character so Corporate Responsibility departments needed to harness these people and their energy in the business context to place systemic pressure for change internally.

CSR also needed to ask more questions of company reports, with more clear signalling needed that reflected an honest approach – “we need help to understand and drive change”.

Graham believes that companies cannot continue to pretend that they have solved all world’s problems every year. For Graham, CSR departments should be the “keepers of corporate knowledge” and must know every part of the business in order to reach out and engage effectively with all stakeholders internally and then much wider – bring the outside world opinions into the business through engagement and conversations. Align that with materiality – what a business can we do and what it currently cannot. Then make this a core CSR process.

For Vicky Murray, while current CSR models failing, there is an urgent and compelling need to transform whole systems for sustainability through joint action, developed through System Innovation. For example, Forum for the Future spent the past three-and-a-half years developing a case for change and action in shipping, working with a wide range of business and Third Sector partners.

There are now four work streams in place now, a result of collective action for maximum impact with a first report on sustainability-change progress at end of year.

Vicky quoted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Simon Leadbetter was perhaps the most strident in his arguments against current CSR practice. He compared the need for global corporate change and the growing socio-cultural pressures for action on climate change to the campaign to end slavery.

Ethical investment that is sustainable and responsible played a part in this change. Without it, CSR will make no difference but there also has to be transparency – currently there are self-defeating sustainability strategies in big corporates. In the end, sustainability is just good business but there is a need explain the new CSR, which has a broader role in society than just making a profit.

As acronym-brand CSR is dead but as a business strategy we have not even started. Michael Solomon argued that in CSR, the choice is between the good and the bad in sustainability. Among the main problems, as he sees them, are:

  1. Waste of precious resources – for example, reports no one reads
  2. Current CSR ignores fundamental issue with capitalism.
  3. There is willingness but it is very difficult to be a business in current conditions.
  4. This tension not effectively managed by CSR currently.
  5. HSBC, Starbucks, Tesco, BP etc. – global brands with years of CSR but which are the most problematic. These brands, al all others, need to reverse and do what they say they are doing.
  6. Currently, there is only a tiny bit of good to balance off the bad.

There was a final, evocative thought from the chair, Tim West. He referenced Nobel Prize (Economics) Professor Mohammed Younis. Business people are like personal life – a mix of the selfish and the selfless. In a similar way, corporates need wider range of business drivers and paradigms than just selfish pursuit of profit. Do join in the discussion and add your thoughts – and if you have any questions, just contact us either through the website or call 0333 123 5464.

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