Words matter – and socially, environmentally and economically responsible business needs a new brand name.
By Jonathan Løw
"The limitations of my language set the limitations of my world", a wise German philosopher once said.
Among other things, Ludwig Wittgenstein was pointing to the fact that concepts and words are important because they are associated with and create meaning. We should not be indifferent to the words we use to describe things in our world.
Based on this approach, it also makes sense to re-examine the whole concept of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) -- not to get into a big discussion and analysis of the history of words, but because it can have a big impact on how we articulate the social responsibility we are trying to put on the agenda.
Substance, Not Semantics
However, if you still think that I am more hung up on semantics than matters of substance, consider the following issues in relation to CSR as a concept:
- “Corporate” as a word can seem alienating for small businesses, because it implies companies of a certain size. In addition, “corporate social responsibility” points to a strange dichotomy between a “corporation” and its customers and society. The whole concept seems to suggest that the company must take responsibility for society, but responsibility arises precisely in the interaction between management, employees, customers, suppliers, governments, etc.
Therefore, several experts have suggested “mutual” as a better word, because it emphasises the common and reciprocal responsibility we are actually talking about.
- “Social” is too narrow a concept in relation to what the term was actually originally intended to convey; it cannot properly convey environmental and economic concerns.
- “Responsibility” is generally negatively charged from the outset. It suggests an “onerous responsibility” – a big commitment -- rather than opening up the obvious possibilities and potential that taking social responsibility can entail.
I believe it is crucial that we, both as business leaders and opinion makers and as a society, strive for more inclusive terminology when it comes to doing responsible business. The very word “responsibility” has led to a negative discourse at many companies, where taking responsibility is seen as a burden on the company. Accountability is something we can focus on during good times but not something we have the energy to think about during a crisis.
But indeed, it is really quite the opposite. Taking social responsibility and engaging stakeholders can have a significant impact on the bottom line – as numerous international studies have shown.
Therefore, a possible simplification of the concept of CSR could be “responsible business,” which does not sound like a burden but still focuses on the importance of caring about the world around us.
It’s Not So Straightforward
However, it is not as straightforward as simply replacing one term with another.
“CSR” has already established itself as the umbrella term we use when we talk about everything from employee policies to the environment, production methods, charitable partnerships -- the list goes on. It has become a common point of reference that at least partly makes sense across sectors and countries.
It follows that “CSR” should be able to encompass the many dimensions we are actually talking about. However, “responsible business” does not, as it still does not address the potential that this responsibility holds.
My hope is that we can find a common term that also shifts the focus from CSR as being primarily “corporate philanthropy” or “CSR as risk management” to CSR as real “value creation,” where taking social responsibility has a fundamental strategic and operational impact.
That's when the company starts creating shared value between itself, its customers and society in general – and that is when we can also start to think in terms of sustainable business models and incorporate them into our business strategy.
What Can We Call CSR Instead?
Three things are crucial:
- The term has to be meaningful (validity);
- The term must be understandable for business leaders, politicians, NGOs, investors, etc. (reliability);
- The term must include opportunities to take social responsibility (potential.)
I have not managed to come up with a polished suggestion while writing this article. However, I have listed one possibility below for further discussion and reflection:
PDB: Purpose Driven Business
British author Wayne Visser writing on the future of CSR (or PDB), perhaps puts it best:
“CSR is, at its core, clarification and reorientation of the purpose of business. It is a misnomer to believe that the purpose of business is to be profitable, or to serve shareholders. These are simply means to an end. Ultimately, the purpose of business is to serve society, through the provision of safe, high quality products and services that enhance our wellbeing, without the erosion of our ecological and community life-support systems.
The essence of CSR is positive contribution to society – not as a marginal afterthought, but as a way of business.”