CSR has failed. Now what?

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Has CSR failed?

That’s the question being asked by Wayne Visser in this thoughtful and searching paper that raises significant concerns about how companies pursue responsible ideas. But, alongside those areas that he has identified as needing to be addressed, Visser proposes his vision of CSR 2.0. I was keen to explore what some of the ideas mooted here might mean for brand behaviours going forward.

First – a brief recap of Visser’s argument. If you define CSR as “an integrated, systemic approach by business that builds, rather than erodes or destroys, economic, social, human and natural capital”, then we have no choice, says Visser, than to mark CSR as a fail because communities and ecosystems are getting worse. While at the micro level there have been improvements, at the macro level, social, environmental and ethical health is in decline. And that’s because most sustainability and corporate responsibility programs are really about being less bad in pockets than actively good across the board.

CSR, he says, transits through five Ages:

1. Greed – limited corporate sustainability and responsibility practices are initiated but only if and when it protects shareholder value

2. Philanthropy – companies support various social and environmental causes through donations and sponsorships, but that’s the limit of their involvement

3. Marketing – the ‘greenwash’ phase, when CSR is looked upon as a public relations opportunity to enhance brand, image and reputation

4. Management – CSR activities are aligned to core business in some way, and undertaken through adherence to CSR codes and systems. (Watch the Dame Anita Roddick video referenced below for the Body Shop founder’s withering take on how management and accounting firms have fostered this in order to make huge amounts of money.)

5. Responsibility – activities actively focus on identifying and tackling the root causes of unsustainability and irresponsibility, through business models, disruptive processes and offerings, and lobbying for changes to national and international policies that benefit the wider community.

The first four phases doom CSR to failure, says Visser. But Responsibility is a step-change. Brands in the Responsibility Age of CSR in other words are actively looking to change the world rather than simply engaging in change processes that suit them.

Three pointers then, based on Visser’s thinking, on how brands might choose to pursue responsibility in the years ahead.

1. Purposeful creativity: Brands will need to focus on creatively solving truly pressing needs through a social business model. That of course means that brands will need to identify those globally-based needs, develop market-attractive products that address those needs and monitor how effective change really is. As part of that, they will need to candidly appraise, at least internally, whether the models they use are part of the solution or part of the problem.

These ideas align directly with my own ideas of the “opinionated brand”, the pending changes in disclosure (“what have you done to truly change the world?”) and the need for brands to pursue a true purpose not just the paperwork of vision and mission.

2. Scaled sustainability: Brands will need to make the same commitment to scaled sustainability that they have made to scaled growth. CSR solutions that cannot match that scale and urgency, says Visser, “are red herrings at best and evil diversions at worst.” He dismisses the organic and Fairtrade movements essentially as tinkering and cites Wal-Mart’s supply chain decisions as a true example of 2.0-level scalability.

Based on this, real change needs to be vast to be effective – and therefore will probably need to happen at the distribution level. To deliver that scale and attract significant momentum, global and regionally scaled brands will need to convert their sustainability and responsibility initiatives into meaningful B2B conversations and pack them with repercussions for failure.

3. Accessible fairness: Ethical must democratise if it is to be adapted at scale. In other words, consumers shouldn’t have to choose between the right thing to do and the right price to pay. “CSR will no longer manifest as luxury products and services (as with current green and Fairtrade options), but as affordable solutions for those who most need quality of life improvements.” The Prius, says Visser, is laudable but largely unaffordable. As such it can never be more than an incremental answer.

Brands must open up responsible actions to everyone not just those who can afford them. The tensions in this suggestion are obvious. I wonder if this is an opportunity for VJ Govandarajin’s concept of “reverse innovation” – products that are affordable and that, through their affordability, help everyone participate in changing the world for the better?

I have argued for some time now that CSR gives out the wrong messages and that the term itself needs to be simplified in order to be clarified.

We need to lose the “corporate” in CSR in my view because it implies a big business approach and therefore reputation-focused activities associated with Greed, Philanthropy, Marketing and Management.

We probably need to lose the “social” because the issues that organisations are grappling with, and the answers they will need to find in response, reach far beyond the purely social arena.

But we should retain “Responsibility” because to me that is the focus: the onus on organisations and the individuals within organisations to be responsible and take responsibility. It’s clear. It’s far-reaching. It requires everyone to take a position (and that position is active). And it sets a clear benchmark for every brand in every sector going forward.

“How responsible are we being?”

What do you think?

Image of “News Paper Origami Dragon Monster” by, sourced from Flickr


Connecting your brand and your social responsibility policies

Video of Dame Anita Roddick on why CSR has failed in her view:

CorporateWatch on the arguments against CSR

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