December 11, 2018

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Can We Break the Spell of CSR Curses?

By focusing too much on codes and standards, CSR ends up falling short

Submitted by: Dr. Wayne Visser

Posted: Nov 03, 2011 – 04:49 PM EST

Series: Quest for CSR 2.0

Tags: csr, corporate social responsibility, age of responsibility, management, leadership

 
Waynevisser

By Wayne Visser

As part of the Quest for CSR 2.0 series

Looking back, we can see that the 1990s was the decade of CSR codes and standards – from EMAS and ISO 14001 to SA 8000 and the Global Reporting Initiative. But these were just a warm up act compared to the last 10 years, when we have seen codes proliferate in virtually every area of sustainability and responsibility and all major industry sectors. So much so that in the A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility, we included over 100 such codes, guidelines and standards – a small selection of what is out there.

This spawning of CSR codes and standards is typical of Strategic CSR, emerging from the Age of Management. At its heart, this is the drive to relate CSR activities to the company’s core business (like Coca-Cola's focus on water management) by turning these into formal management systems, with cycles of CSR policy development, goal and target setting, program implementation, auditing and reporting. All good and well, but where does this leave us?

My belief is that Strategic CSR – like its predecessors Defensive, Charitable and Promotional CSR – has brought us to a point of crisis. Specifically, all these approaches are failing to turn around our most serious global problems – the very issues CSR purports to be concerned with – and may even be distracting us from the real issue, which is business’ causal role in the social and environmental crises we face. This failure is due to what I have called the three Curses of CSR 1.0; namely, that it is incremental, peripheral and uneconomic. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

Curse 1: Incremental CSR

One of the great revolutions of the 1970s was total quality management, conceived by American statistician W. Edwards Deming and perfected by the Japanese before being 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. It is no surprise, therefore, the most popular environmental management standard, ISO 14001, is 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 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 to CSR, while replete with evidence of micro-scale, gradual improvements, has completely and utterly failed to make any impact on the massive sustainability crises we face, many of which are getting worse at a pace that far outstrips any futile CSR-led attempts at amelioration.

Curse 2: Peripheral CSR

Ask any CSR manager what his/her greatest frustration is and that person will tell you it is lack of top management commitment. Translated, this means 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.

So what we are left with is an approach to CSR, which allows each company to set its own voluntary objectives and targets, which appear responsible, but lacks the scale and urgency needed to reverse our social and environmental crises. CSR remains peripheral in another sense as well: it is only a handful of big brand companies that find themselves in the CSR spotlight. What about the millions of small- and medium-sized enterprises? By and large, CSR passes them by, despite their collectively bigger impact.

Curse 3: Uneconomic CSR

Which brings us to Curse 3. If there was ever a monotonously repetitive, stuck record in CSR debates, it is the one about the so-called ‘business case’ for CSR. That is because CSR managers and consultants, and even the occasional saintly CEO, are desperate to find compelling evidence that ‘doing good is good for business’ (i.e., CSR pays). The lack of corroborative research seems to be no impediment for these desperados endlessly incanting the motto of the business case, as if it were an entirely self-evident fact.

Rather, the more ‘inconvenient truth’ is that CSR sometimes pays, in very specific circumstances, but more often, does not.

Of course there are low-hanging fruit – like eco-efficiencies around waste and energy – but these only go so far. Most of the hard-core CSR changes that are needed to reverse the misery of poverty and sixth mass extinction of species currently underway require strategic change and massive investment. They may very well be lucrative in the long term, economically rational over a generation or two, but we have already established that the financial markets don’t work like that; at least, not yet.

From my perspective, that leaves us with three options for taking CSR forward: The Parrot, Ostrich and Phoenix scenarios.

The Way of the Parrot is to tell it like it is: Recognise the limitations of CSR and admit to its primary role as a business tactic for reputation management. The Way of the Ostrich is the status quo: Pretend CSR is working and that more of the same will be enough.

The Way of the Phoenix is the transformative agenda: reconceptualize CSR as a radical or revolutionary concept that challenges the intransigent business and economic model and offers genuine solutions to our global challenges. The Way of the Phoenix is what I call Systemic CSR, Transformative CSR, or CSR 2.0, and is what we are starting to see rising from the ashes of the previous ages, as we enter a new Age of Responsibility.

Next: The Way of the Phoenix, or a positive agenda.

About Wayne Visser

Dr. Visser is Founder and Director of the think-tank CSR International and the author of twelve books. In addition, Dr. Visser is Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and Visiting Professor of Sustainability at Magna Carta College, Oxford. Before getting his PhD in CSR, Dr. Visser was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Cap Gemini in South Africa. In 2011, he was listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Europe & the Middle East. Dr. Visser lives in London, UK, and enjoys art, writing poetry, spending time outdoors and travelling. A full biography and much of his writing and art is on www.waynevisser.com.

Readers: Which will it be – the Parrot, Ostrich or Phoenix scenario? Share on Talkback!

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