Does CSR Need a Makeover?


According to management consulting firm McKinsey, “traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) is failing to deliver, for both companies and society. Executives need a new approach to engaging the external environment”. CSR is evolving, and strategists are trying to work out the best way to have a positive impact on society.

Businesses are exploring and innovating with CSR; for example, Unilever has restructured its priorities to focus on sustainability and has what The Economist called “the most comprehensive strategy of enlightened capitalism of any global firm”.

But what is the most effective way for businesses to deliver meaningful impact? This is the question Salt posed to its Compassionate Think Tank.

Adam Woodhall, ‪associate director at Carbon Smart, said that CSR is developing naturally and effectively: “I’d say that there is nothing wrong with CSR, it is a stage in development for organisations on their journey. What started off with philanthropy, then morphed into CSR and organisations such as Unilever are now working on becoming sustainable.

“I believe that in a few years time, we will be having a similar conversation about the concept of ‘sustainability’ being outdated, as it has been superseded by a new concept.”

Woodhall agreed with Salt’s Oliver Haenlein, who suggested that having an independent and isolated CSR unit within a company could be counterproductive, potentially hindering the development of ideas across the board.

“For the more forward thinking organisations, an isolated CSR department is going to struggle to embed sustainability, and the best way is to empower responsibility and cultivate ownership,” Woodhall said.

Mojo PR’s Tara Rogers and Salt Editor Alicia Buller emphasised the importance of embedding the right values into businesses. The latter said: “Personally I think businesses should build ethical and sustainable values into their core being – which negates the need for a CSR department. All businesses should fundamentally consider the wider network of costs – environmental and social – and build this into their DNA and company mission. Given the fraught state of the global environmental and political ecosystem, businesses with purpose are the businesses of the future. They simply have to be. We can’t afford for CSR to be an add-on, an afterthought or a nice-to-have.”

Mining engineer and consultant Jose Antonio Ardito added: “If CSR is a value for a person or company there won`t be problems for its implementation.”

Nadine Hack, former board Chair of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and CEO of beCause Global Consulting said that it will be easier for businesses to integrate CSR into their core if business schools teach it as a vital part of the DNA of organisations. She added: “Having been on this journey since the 1970s before terms like CSR or sustainability had entered the common lexicon, I hope to see an acceleration of all of this during my lifetime.”

The areas on which CSR often focuses also came into the conversation, with intrapeneur Chris Oestereich suggesting that some businesses are missing the point: “Too much of what passes for CSR work today goes toward two areas which I think ought to be afterthoughts: philanthropy and reporting.

“I see philanthropy as a “necessary evil” which we need to work to obviate through the creation of systems which do not leave so many needing. We’re a long way from that goal, but it’s one we must drive towards. As for reporting, I struggle to understand why we spend so much time reporting on our work, when we’re nowhere near where we need to be with the work itself.”

Declabs’ Carl Pratt gave his view on developing CSR, countering the idea that CSR departments need no longer exist: “Evolution most often includes elements of previous iterations. Having a CSR department is the same as having HR or IT, the evolutionary step is not to get rid of the CSR team. It is to empower them to go further. It is also to recognise the stars of CSR within the business, the shareholders, the leaders in their respective departments.

The dangers of generalising were highlighted by Stanford University professor Antonio Vives: “There are large firms and small firms, there are multinationals and there are local firms, some have managerial and financial resources, some do not, some have enlightened leaders like Unilever, most have not, some operate in strong legal and institutional frameworks, some operate in weak ones. The approach to take is country-, company- and time-specific.

“The most important lesson in CSR is “do not generalise”, develop a strategy and structure according to the needs and expectations of the firm and its stakeholders at the time and in the context.”

Finally, Dario Zegarra Macchiavello, community relations manager for copper producer Antamina, discussed implementation: “CSR demands an implementation process. All companies and societies are not at the same startpoint. Social demands and requirements from stakeholders vary significantly and must get incorporated in the CSR action implementation.
“However, companies which get CSR embedded in their DNA would certainly be more efficient and successful to create long term value for society and itself.”

Are you passionate about the environment and global sustainability? Join our debate at Salt Compassionate Business Think Tank


Photo Credit: Port of Dover from flickr