For those of us who have been working in corporate social responsibility (CSR) for years: Now is our moment.
Apple’s supplier woes have put the social impacts of business onto every media outlet from the Daily Show [see below] to Fox News. Twitter users organized a boycott this weekend after the company’s announcement that it would withhold tweets in countries where the content is illegal. Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case about Shell’s activities in Nigeria, and determine whether corporations can be sued for human rights abuses abroad.
These cases of how companies affect the rights of people and communities are what CSR is all about. As these iconic businesses struggle in the spotlight, now is the time to make that clear.
The Evolution of CSR
With the explosion of CSR in the past ten years (in 2010, some 5,600 companies around the world issued CSR or sustainability reports, up from 837 ten years earlier), the term has become so broad as to mean everything and therefore nothing: from funding walk-a-thons to recycling programs.
CSR means improving what companies’ core activities do to people and planet throughout their operations, and stopping them from causing harm. It is not sending employees in matching t-shirts out to paint a wall for five hours a year, or using philanthropic checks as a fig leaf to hide wrongdoing.
The Elephant in the Room
My CSR colleagues are out in the field and see the good, the bad, and the ugly of what globalization has done to the world’s most vulnerable people. They are working in every industry, on the front lines of globalization at the far corners of the earth. They’re calling out suppliers skimping on pay and dealing with corrupt police who see them as ATMs.
They're working on complex issues with no easy answers and little precedent, for example investigating their supply chains all the way back to raw materials to find and eradicate child and forced labor (HP with conflict minerals in the Congo; Coca-Cola in the sugar cane fields of El Salvador; with cotton in Uzbekistan).
As Monica Gorman, the new head of CSR at New Balance, said to me recently:
“CSR is only meaningful if you talk about the elephant in the room. It’s the biggest, ugliest, darkest secret you have -- that should be what you focus on.”
CSR = Front Page News
Despite doing work that is in the best interests of both business and society, CSR professionals often struggle to make the case to higher-ups for more resources. When I worked for BP, I hungered for that front page New York Times story that I could show my bosses to prove how a company can incur the wrath of local communities, regulators, and the global media for getting CSR wrong or not getting it at all. (I left the company in 2008, two years before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.)
Now, the case for CSR is impossible to avoid.
It might seem opportunistic to capitalize on the plight of others to bolster our own staffs and budgets. But any feelings of Schadenfreude at other companies’ debacles quickly give way to the sentiment of "There but for the Grace of God go I." Our goal is to prevent these abuses from occurring again, anywhere.
This is our opportunity to explain to the world what CSR really is. Let’s send philanthropy and marketing back to the right departments with the right professionals, and get on with our work.
If nothing else, these recent news stories have clarified CSR for one important stakeholder: After years of confusion over my choice of career, my mother called last week and asked whether “this horrible Apple stuff” is related to what I do.