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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Corporate Social Responsibility : has industry lost its way ?

The CSR “industry” should go back to basics, says Chandran Nair

As another year draws to a close it is clear it has been one of countless corporate social responsibility conferences, forums and workshops. The phenomenon is characterised by ever bigger events, more pontification, few original thoughts, less informed debate, more participation by public relations professionals, great earnestness, few actions and an expanding list of “issues”.

What does not seem to be happening is an honest assessment of what has been achieved and what impact the work of corporate responsibility teams is having on the ground. From repeated and wholly general statements about the “triple bottom line”, supply chains, socially responsible investments, diversity and climate change, the mantra seems to be that everything is in and nothing is out. This is an industry that has lost the plot, where intellectual honesty is not a strong feature and taking action is not on the agenda.

Muddled and confused

Any leading business executive will tell you in private that the corporate responsibility conference circuit is muddled, but they cannot afford not to be seen to be engaged. But even those who are genuinely concerned about the issues know full well the constraints put on them by the market place. They know that in the imperfect market that is the global economy, there is a trade-off between the growth imperative and the ever-expanding demands of the issues under the corporate social responsibility umbrella. This is despite the pious statements of NGOs and some business leaders that “win-win” situations are to be found everywhere.

Apart from the opening session of these forums where – if one is lucky – a few chief executives and vice-presidents appear (but hardly say anything), the rest of the conference is dominated by PR and corporate affairs teams, environmental and sustainability managers and someone from compliance. Despite the many conferences taking place across Asia, most of the leading advocates and speakers are from Europe and the US. These earnest individuals if pressed will also tell you they have no real power to influence or change anything where and when it matters.

So why have we – the corporate social responsibility industry – got into this state?
· Corporate responsibility has become a self-perpetuating industry involving the usual players.

· In an “unfair world” companies want an outlet for showing how much they care, while not needing to be accountable for getting even simple things done.

· Companies find it necessary to be engaged but are still not sure what to do beyond the usual compliance and a dose of philanthropy.

· There is a competence deficit and lack of authority of many of the players drawn to this sector.

· Corporate social responsibility has gone mainstream and in the process the thinking has been diluted and the need for action on specifics replaced by a craving for dialogue.

So what can be done?

First, the serious players must begin to bring content, focus, commitment and actions back on the agenda. This means linking stakeholder engagement to quick outcomes, not never-ending reports, analysis and more conversations that have to be politically correct.

Second, companies should decide what issues they want to participate in, defend their stand and leave out PR spin until actions have been taken. But be sincere and respect the views of others.

This sort of focus should not be left to PR or corporate affairs. It should only be left to sustainability, environmental or compliance managers if the board is committed to listen when they return with a “this is what we should do over the next 12 months” message.

Third, NGOs should realise that they do not have the knowledge edge and that preaching is getting tiresome. Instead of moral campaigns, these groups should come forward with practical ideas they are willing to test out with companies. Partnerships can enable NGOs to take ownership of ideas they offer to business and work with the “C” in CSR – corporations. It may be more demanding than taking the moral high ground but has a much better chance of bringing about change.

The corporate social responsibility industry must get back to basics. The issues are far too important to be left in the current sea of confusion.

By Chandran Nair,founder and chief executive of Global Institute for Tomorrow.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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