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From grey to green: Where does your CSR sit?

What is the tipping point within your organisation that will lead to the CSR switch? To focus on doing more good, rather than how to do less bad…

Submitted by: Martin Brown

Posted: Jul 24, 2011 – 04:07 PM EST

Tags: csr, sustainability, built environment, business, green


By Martin Brown

CSR: grey or green? No longer can organisations hide behind “greenwash” or “CSRwash.” Social media has limited this, and as Erin Schrode so brilliantly pointed out at the Sustainable Brands conference, "you can’t fool us, our search skills are too good; we want transparency and authenticity."

Back in 1910, Patrick Geddes a Scottish polyglot thinker, Godfather of Town and Country Planning and purveyor of triptychs coined the expression of Place, Work and Folk. 

We have come a long way since, and now have a new sense of triple bottom line thinking, but keeping the original triple line thinking of Place, Work and Folk as central drivers grounds any organisation within its environment. Indeed focus is now on embedding CSR and sustainability into business… moving from a bolt-on approach to CSR to one that is the heart and soul of the business.

Over the last two decades and more, I have supported and encouraged CSR approaches within built environment organisations, most often to satisfy a particular contract or bid, sometimes as a real desire to minimise the organisation’s impact, rarely from the desire to be a thought leader for CSR in the sector. Arguably that is not in the culture of construction or facilities management organisations.

This work and such observations have led to me to use a litmus test for understanding CSR approaches and thinking – understanding where an organisation is and what nudges and movements would work to move forward and mature. Note: these 'nudges' are more in thinking and attitudes than in CSR 'deeds.' 

Grey to Green Thinking

Cornucopian Thinking: The glass that will always refills itself no matter what we do. Indeed the natural and financial environment will turn full circle and everything will be ok again. In fact we need do nothing different now as some emerging technology (carbon capture perhaps?) will make all of our problems go away. And if our customers and staff don’t like the way we operate, then, well, there are always the competition to turn to.

I read in the Guardian whilst writing this that despite years of legislation and awareness, 50% of UK large organisations do not have any carbon targets.  

Accommodationalist Thinking: To accommodate the minimum, often to stay within the law, comply with ISO standards and satisfy the minimum requirements of our customers and staff. A key to this pattern of thinking is where sustainability and CSR sits within the organisation. Sitting alongside Health and Safety functions (for convenience) then it will always remain a bolt-on, which makes it difficult to move to a role that has a voice at a board level.

Foresight Thinking: Thinking based on the premise sustainability makes good business sense. Moving beyond the minimum and starting to embed CSR within the organisation. CSR and sustainability, as a function, sits at the centre of the organisation, often a dedicated CSR post with a voice at board level. Business impact understanding goes beyond the environmental and includes assessments on, for example, diversity or equality impact.

Gaian Thinking: Stems from the realisation of a greater holistic good as the driver for CSR approaches, alongside a recognition of connection with nature or the planet. There is a growing number of businesses in this thinking, epitomised for example by the 1% for the Planet group of organisations. In fact, I often give a copy of or recommend reading Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing to those I work with.

There is a growing body of evidence linking good CSR and sustainability thinking to good business sense, but perhaps no one has summed this up so brilliantly and simply as Yvon Chouinard stated at Patagonia: "every time we do the right thing for the planet we make a profit." 

A question all business should be asking then is, "Is your CSR approach returning a profit, and do we know?”

Tipping the Point

Somewhere along this grey to green spectrum there is a tipping point, where the switch from minimising the bad to maximising the good kicks in. I’d like to think of this as salutogenesis for sustainability and CSR. (Salutogenesis is an emerging and important school of thought within health care and increasingly within social well being that makes the switch from a focus on what makes us ill to a focus on what makes us stay healthy.) 

What is the tipping point within your organisation that will lead to this switch? To focus on doing more good, rather than how to do less bad… 

About Martin Brown

Martin Brown is an advocate for change and improvement in the fields of sustainability, collaborative working and social media. He has extensive knowledge of the built environment sector from a career that spans project management, business improvement and advocacy in the UK, USA and elsewhere. He works with and supports built environment organizations, from major clients to small micro SMEs on many improvement themes including bidding, environmental management, construction carbons and community based facilities management.

Through his Route to Zero program Martin facilitates organizations setting strategies for sustainability and a low carbon future. His blog, Fairsnape, covers built environment news, views and comments. He can also be found on Twitter @fairsnape.

Readers: Martin Brown asked it – is your CSR approach returning a socially good profit, and does your public know about it? Tell us on Talkback!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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