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CSRlive Commentary

10.23.2010 - 07:14PM

Category: Research, Reports & Publications

CSRwire Author Spotlight: Wayne Visser


By Contributing Writer Elaine Cohen


Age: 39

Born in: Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Lives in: London

Favorite CSR Book: Cradle to Cradle (William McDonough & Michael Braungart)

Favorite non-CSR book: Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)

Favorite movie: Brazil (1985, Director Terry Gilliam)

Favorite musician: Johnny Clegg (South African)

Favorite CSR report: Patagonia

Favorite flavor ice cream: Ginger

If I could, I would ...: Be a full-time writer

Wayne Visser is one of the most prolific, creative and original thought leaders on CSR and author/editor of books on the subject. He is the Founder and Director of think-tank CSR International. Before getting his PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (Nottingham University, UK), Wayne was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Cap Gemini in South Africa. Wayne also holds an MSc in Human Ecology (Edinburgh University, UK) and a Bachelor of Business Science with Honours in Marketing (Cape Town University, South Africa). Wayne lives in London and enjoys art, writing poetry, spending time outdoors and traveling in his home continent of Africa.

Wayne says this about his current approach to CSR and sustainability: "I am more interested in what is being done that what labels we give things. It so happens that I talk about CSR 2.0 - which I also call systemic CSR or radical CSR - and I use CSR to mean 'corporate sustainability and responsibility', but I really don't care if people have different jargon. For me, the proof must be in the results and for too long we have focused on measuring CSR activities rather than the societal impacts of business. My new test for whether a company is a CSR 2.0 pioneer in the Age of Responsibility is simple: what is their level of admission and ambition, i.e. do they admit the extent of their un-sustainability and irresponsibility, and do they set audacious targets like zero waste, 100% renewable energy and raising stakeholder happiness."

Wayne spends about 20% of his time actually writing with 50% spent doing explicit or implicit research on which the books are based. There is always something in the pipeline. However, Wayne's favorite book of all those he has authored remains his first one, Beyond Reasonable Greed (co-authored with Clem Sunter), "mainly because I used lions and elephants as a metaphor for unsustainable and sustainable companies. It was fascinating researching the traits of both species, and it was fun creatively applying the analogy to business. We even ended up with 'leophants' - those companies in between. … The timing for BRG was perfect, as it came out just when the Enron & Worldcom scandals were hitting the headlines. So I think the message was intuitively understood, but it was not seriously acted upon. To use the language of the book, we saw the emergence of many 'leophants' since 2002. Today there more lion corpses on the slab to dissect (like Lehman Brothers) and a number of genuine elephant companies to learn from (like Interface), as well as any number of injured leophants (like BP) that are getting left behind."

Landmarks for Sustainability, 2009, was an attempt to capture the events that shaped the sustainability agenda. Wayne wrote this book for the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. He explains: "There are certain corporate events - like Shell's Brent Spar fiasco, McDonald's McLibel trial, Nike's supply chain wake-up call and Enron's collapse - that most people in CSR have heard about, but they don't have the facts and figures at their finger tips. For me, the most significant landmark event was the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, because it shows us the extent to which all our other CSR and sustainability efforts are failing at a catastrophic scale."

Another important addition to Wayne's collection was the book, Corporate Citizenship in Africa, published in 2006. This was significant because, "it was a book about Africa, not just South Africa, but it did point out the general lack of academic research beyond South Africa and Nigeria. Second, it confirmed our suspicion that most research on CSR in Africa was qualitative, with little or no country-comparative data. And third, it showed that research on CSR in South Africa was also quite skewed, largely towards business ethics. The question of whether CSR is understood by leading businesses in SA is different. The answer is unequivocally 'yes'. That is the interesting thing about many developing countries - businesses know that they can't succeed in societies that fail; often the business case is much clearer and the moral case much stronger."

Wayne has just completed an amazing "CSR Quest" world tour following the publication of The World Guide to CSR, to advance sharing of best CSR practices. The World Guide to CSR contains contributions from 58 countries. Wayne was surprised by the "diversity of submissions - not just the usual suspects among the G20, but also countries like Armenia, Bangladesh, Iran, Iceland, Liberia, Peru, Romania and United Arab Emirates." Wayne adds, "The second and most delightful aspect was learning how each country's cultural tradition has shaped CSR practices, in some cases (such as in Azerbaijan, Turkey and India) with these influences having evolved over centuries." The CSR Quest tour brought so many insights: "the fact that a lot of the most important social innovation is taking place in developing countries (like India), that awareness and expectations of CSR are higher in places like Brazil than the UK, that many non-OECD countries and companies are still stuck in the CSR Ages of Philanthropy and Marketing, that Europe and America is mesmerised by the Age of Management, and that very very few anywhere recognise that the concept of CSR - and the larger industrial model of shareholder-driven capitalism - is fundamentally flawed and will never solve the problems it claims to be most concerned about."

Wayne's most important book is on its way. "The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business" (to be published on 18 February 2011). "Not only does it fundamentally challenge business and the notion of CSR - for example, it starts by stating that CSR has failed and should either be killed off, or reinvented - but it is written in an narrative style that I think makes it an easy read, with lots of fascinating cases and stories of 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of corporate sustainability and responsibility."

However, we should not forget the books that Wayne has not yet written as these promise to add even more to our sustainability thinking and development. Wayne explains: "I'd like to write up my CSR Quest world tour as a kind of travel book with a CSR twist; I'd also like to do a book on Purpose-Inspired Leadership, as well as writing a business parable that captures the lessons of CSR but never mentions the word. I'd also like to do a book called Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive, which tackles the macro-level of economics and culture, rather than the micro-level of companies and CSR."

Thank you to Wayne Visser for such fascinating insights and for a major dose of inspiration. I am sure we will all benefit from Wayne's future writings and I for one am looking forward to reading The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business.

Wayne Visser's CSR Book Bibliography:

About Elaine Cohen

Elaine Cohen is a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter at Beyond Business and blogger on sustainability reporting and author of CSR for HR: A necessary business partnership to advance responsible business practices.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.



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