Feb 152011
Every so often, tedious ‘academic’ debates pollute the blogosphere, the latest being the tired old navel gazing about what we should call the act of running a business that doesn’t kill people or wildlife. It seems some people have just woken up after a multi-year sleep and decided ‘CSR’ doesn’t really cut it anymore. “The ‘social’ implies philanthropy and community work only”, they caution, so what about losing the ‘S’ and just having ‘CR’, or maybe ‘citizenship’ or ‘responsible business’? 
Where have you been, doctors? These arguments are ancient. But I will just fire up the time machine and go back to the late 1990s for a second. My view, for what it’s worth, is that ‘sustainability’ is the best catch all ‘academic’ term for all this. No, it isn’t just about ‘green’. If your workforce is miserable you’re not sustainable. If you can’t attract the best graduates because you are a walking Guardian front page scandal, you’re not sustainable. If you don’t eat the right foods, that’s not sustainable. And financial sustainability ties in nicely with social and environmental sustainability. So if you MUST get stuck on this topic, sustainability gets my vote. 
Now, back to the real world. None of these phrases mean much, if anything to consumers. Too many companies try to engage them with rather pompous sections of their website. These are invariably called ‘Our Values’, ‘Our Obligations to People and Planet’, ‘Profits with a Conscience’ and so on. As regular readers will know, I’m of the opinion that companies and their CEOs need to sound much more like campaigners for social and environmental progress (see my recent Ethical Corporation article on that here http://tiny.cc/wui4y). Therefore I encourage clients to step into the shoes of the consumer of their   sustainability communications. I prefer ‘Activism’ to ‘corporate citizenship’. ‘Treating People Fairly’ to ‘ethical trading’. And my favourite of all on green issues is Patagonia’s sweet and simple word for what they do: ‘Environmentalism’. It does what it says on the tin. They’re environmentalists, not ‘catalysts for sustainable development’. Enough already.
As Kauffmann said: “The economy depends about as much on economists as the weather does on weather forecasters”. The same could be said of parts of the CSR intelligentsia. And no, I don’t mean the best thinkers, like David Grayson. I mean the people who talk a lot and do almost nothing that anyone would want to write about.
That said, I’m looking forward to the CSR academic community starting a debate on all this. In 2020. 

  One Response to “How CSR academics pollute the atmosphere”

  1. You’re right that substance is what matters; unfortunately, we have to use words to communicate, and words can mislead.Take the term "CSR." Terrible term. It’s actually NOT all about Corporations, it’s NOT all about Social issues, and it’s NOT all about Responsibilities (at least not if you take CSR advocates seriously when they say they care about businesses doing the right thing quite generally.Sustainability is a poor one, too. Look at your own example: "If your workforce is miserable you’re not sustainable." Really? Tell that to slaves who worked on cotton plantations that were in operation for 100 years. Besides, if I ask "why should I treat my workers well?" the correct answer cannot possible be "sustainability," but rather "because it’s the right thing to do."

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