Let’s do away with CSR

Maybe it’s time t0 do away with corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Not merely the words and the idea but the infrastructure: CSR departments, CSR reports, CSR conferences and CSR executives.

And, as long as we’re at it, let’s think about ditching the triple bottom line, the pursuit of shared value, corporate citizenship and especially, yuk, the idea that stakeholders deserve a say in how to run a business.

All of these are, at best, distractions and, at worst, ways of thinking about business that create a separation between a company’s core business and its impact on the world. Both ought to be life-enhancing. No more and no less.

I’ve been thinking about CSR and how to talk about it for years.  I wrote my first article on corporate responsibility for FORTUNE in 2003. It ran under an odd headline — Tree Huggers, Soy Lovers and Profits — because my editors knew that  words like corporate social responsibility turn off readers. I grappled with the meaning and terminology of CSR again in my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, which explored connections between religion, faith, values, spirituality and business. The language of faith and values, I subsequently decided, wasn’t the best one to use when speaking to corporate executives about business and its impact. I’m now inclined to talk about sustainability. For all its vagueness, corporate sustainability is an idea that is both practical–no one wants to kill their company–and radical, because no company  is truly sustainable, at least as defined by the Bruntland Commission as promoting development in a way that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

But the here goes beyond language. I was reminded of that when reading an excellent new book by Carol Sanford called The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (Jossey-Bass, 2011). No, I don’t love the title or even her terminology. (One chapter is  called, yikes, “Stakeholders as Systemic Collaborators.”) But Carol’s arguments and insights (and the title wasn’t her idea) are spot on. Carol argues that the most successful and profitable businesses, over time, will not be those that “practice CSR” but instead those that rethink their purpose, reorganize themselves to draw upon the creativity and passion of all, and integrate responsible behavior into the way they do everything they do.

As Carol writes:

Responsibility isn’t a set of metrics to be tracked or behaviors to be modified. It is central to both the purpose and prosperity of a business and must be pervasive in its practices.

This may sound obvious but it leads her (and her readers) to new ways of thinking about business. Businesses, she says, should strive not just to minimize the harm they do, but to do good, to become restorative, to “improve and evolve healthy systems.” She explains:

Ecological and biological systems not only adapt to their surroundings, they also transform them. They create contexts in which increasingly sophisticated networks of relationships emerge…

Corporations, and the businesses within them, work more or less the same way. If they are to live and prosper, they find ways to remain connected to their origins while cultivating and then adapting to changes in the world around them. Their long-term viability has as much to do with how well they create networks of relationships [emphasis added] with consumers and other companies and industries that advance the health of all.

Yes! Here’s how I think about this:

The old/traditional/assembly-line way of doing business was fundamentally transactional. Business was seen as a set of discrete win-lose transactions with customers, employees and suppliers. Companies created value by paying their employees as little as possible, paying their suppliers as little as possible, charging their customers as much as possible and externalizing their costs.

The new/progressive/responsible/sustainable business is fundamentally about relationships. This company sees itself as the center of a network of long-term, win-win relationships with workers, customers, suppliers and communities. The company’s value lies in its ability to strengthen and enhance all of those relationships.

This new way of thinking and behaving can’t be left to the CSR department, the chief sustainability officer or anyone else. It’s the job of the CEO, the CFO, the COO, the CMO, the head of sales, the factory foreman, product designers, everyone.

With a focus on CSR, “you get officers, you get programs, you get incentives,” Carol told me when we spoke by phone. “If you are given a target that you are to achieve, people focus on the target and the processes.” Instead, people need to feel free to express their highest values and beliefs at work. “Humans are most alive, and most creative and innovative when something comes out of them as a person,” she says. A company should be “more like a jazz quartet and less like a conducted symphony.”

Nor does “embedding sustainability” into the business do the trick, Carol told me. Sustainability to what end? Recently,  I had an opportunity to give a paid speech about sustainability to suppliers of a big tobacco company. Uh, no.

Carol has corporate experience to back up her thinking. She’s been a business consultant since 1980, working for such companies as DuPont, Colgate, Seventh Generation and several units of  Clorox, including Kingford Charcoal and Britta.

She tells revealing stories in the book.

A Kingsford Charcoal executive leads a transformation of the company by developing the skills of the company’s workers and encouraging them to think like business owners; he dissolved departmental boundaries, invited everyone to put themselves in the shoes of a customer, and to see the contribution that their work makes to other people’s lives.  He helped them connect their work to a bigger purpose.

In South Africa during the turbulent 1990s, a Colgate leader shook up the workforce by persuading whites to work for blacks, and getting everyone to come together to address issues in both the business and the community.

At DuPont, a middle manager looking for an alternative to Freon, which was contributing to ozone destruction, gets help from throughout the company, from customers and, unexpectedly, from Greenpeace.

None of that could have been accomplished by a CSR executive or department–or any department. “The biggest challenge for a company that aspires to be a responsibility business,” Carol says, “is to stop working on parts and start recognizing and working on whole systems.”

CSR “can’t be bolted on but must be built in,” she says.

Business is too important to be left to CSR departments. It’s also too important to be left to business alone.

Pressures on business to become life-enhancing must come from without as well as from within–from customers, from rank-and-file workers, from engaged shareholders, from activist groups and, gently, from governments. If we find ways to hold businesses accountable for what they do, smart businesses will adapt and meet our rising expectations. Others will die.

It’s not a lot more complicated than that.

Business managers should focus on generating long-term value for their shareholders.

They should lead their companies in ways that enable human flourishing.

That’s the purpose of business in a phrase, a wise man once told me, and he wasn’t a CSR officer.

As Carol writes: “I can hardly wait for the corporate responsibility movement to run its course so that businesses can get back to being responsible by nature.”

Me, too.

Comments

  1. Marc, I agree with the sentiment, but not the conclusion. Respecting the profit of a company is everyone’s job, but you still need a CFO, respecting the law is for all employees, but we don’t fire the Chief Legal Council. Whether sustainability or CSR we still need the role in my view. And I am not saying that just to please my newly appointed CSO and boss at BT !

  2. Well said, Marc. I couldn’t agree more — with both you and Carol.

  3. Marc – Insightful column – can’t wait to read Carol’s book!

  4. Thought provoking post. I would take issue with Carol’s closing quote. “so businesses can get back to being responsible by nature?” Did I miss that period in history?

  5. Cary Krosinsky says:

    the last sentence infers that CSR is all too often a barrier or excuse to real action

    this is an important and immediately relevant piece – thanks Marc

  6. Marc, about time someone came out and said this. No surprise that it would be you!
    I have taken the liberty of posting an abstract here: http://www.valuenewsnetwork.com/blog/let%E2%80%99s-do-away-csr
    Best Laurance

  7. Really thought provoking article. You have said a lot of things that have been going on in my mind for three years, the time when I stepped into this professional field. The level of seriousness is seriously missing across the world as you rightly point out, else we would have had many Ray Andersons to cite as examples.

  8. Marc, this sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater (at best), and I am skeptical that you actually believe much of what you wrote here. With no metrics or reports, how does a business actually know how it is doing, much less how do outsiders? Do you think that your post recently regarding the companies purchasing the most renewable energy was the wrong thing to be writing about because it focused on measuring a numerical outcome? No companies should have a process for deciding how to boost those numbers? They shouldn’t have any employees whose job description is to spend most of their time figuring that out? No measurement? No targets? No reporting? That was all bad? It seemed like you thought the information was useful when you reported it.

    Along with Kevin’s point about the legal analogy, look at a businesses core profit motive. The best companies would say that qualities like efficiency have to be an attitude sought by all employees at all levels, but those same companies don’t throw out all measurement of efficiency for some feel-good notion about efficiency “coming out of them as a person”. They don’t say that no one person should have a role that is devoted to improving the businesses efficiency. Everything that is positively advocated in this post could be said about an organization achieving higher efficiency or higher profits, but everything that is argued against in this post would almost universally be agreed in that context to be wrong.

    And really, you’re saying / agreeing that “targets and processes” shouldn’t be there? How does a huge corporation change anything or accomplish anything without targets and processes for gaining those? This frankly sounds like complete naivete that will kill all progress. Yes, the point makes sense that everyone has to have the goal of ethical operations, seeking sustainability. But how do you organize a company to get there without some process when each individual will have a different sense of the important priorities or even what is ethical? When you do prioritize, how do you have any sense of how you’re doing if you don’t set targets and measure against them?

    Sustainability as the goal, great (whoops, we’re probably not supposed to have goals, eh?). Having a culture of prioritizing it by every employee, very important. Removing all organized efforts for achieving it and any measurement of success in doing it – disaster.

    • OK, Sibley (and Kevin), I will admit that it is a little more complicated than “doing away with CSR.” And I don’t mean to suggest (and didn’t) that goals, targets and metrics related to social and environmental impact don’t have value. They do, whether they are Walmart’s big stretch goals (zero waste) which help promote innovative thinking and give companies a sense of direction or the year-to-year data the companies keep about missed days of work due to accidents, purchases of solar power or charitable contributions.

      My argument is more about (1) language and (2) organizational structure. Talking about CSR implies that it is in some way separate from other things a company does; it isn’t. Rather than focusing on CSR, let’s look at a company’s products, workplaces and finances, as well as its social and environmental impact (all of which should be tracked, yes.) I think people like readers of this blog who want business to “do more good” need to focus more on the core impact of a business. That includes creating jobs and wealth. These are often the most important thing that a business does. They also tend to be rough metric for a company’s value to society. Companies that sell lots of stuff, create jobs and generate wealth typically do so because they are helping to solve problems. (Sometimes not, as in the tobacco company example.) But no CSR officer or department is responsible for profits, job creation, shareholder value, etc. They are sidelined. Compartmentalized.

      Anecdotally, I’d also say that my experience writing about FORTUNE 500 companies has shown me that there are many admirable companies out there that that little or no formal CSR or sustainability operation/function. I’m thinking about Southwest Airlines, UPS and the old HP, all of which I wrote about in my book. More recently, I covered and came to admire JetBlue and J.M. Smucker. These firms have strong values around the idea of service built into the culture, from top to bottom. They think long-term, or at least they did for many years. They didn’t need a CSR function.

      Another way to think about this: Efficiency is obviously an important goal for any good business. So is creativity. Treating workers with respect. Producing quality products. These goals/values are typically pursued by everyone. There’s not a Department of Treating Workers The Way You Would Like To Be Treated. (And please don’t tell me that’s the job of HR.) So why would we want to segregate or compartmentalize CSR?

  9. Great piece Marc. Couldn’t agree more. The quicker we get business to see that it is “just business” then better. I agree with Kevin though – anything that requires systems needs people to drive it too.

  10. What a wonderful conversation. Let me augment what I mean by the ideas from my book Marc added to his own thinking. I tell stories of two dozen companies who have NO programs or dept and yet they achieved, in many cases, more responsible actions. And on a bigger scale than what is being pursued now by some. I do see a possible CSR role which is to become a resource to others in doing the work. But doing it all for them, puts responsibility into a few narrow hands. It takes the idea of out the expert who does it, into make it a capability held my teams with resources to see a bigger picture and learn from. Many stories of this working in the book.

    Although Marc only focused on the CSR part of my book, I also say the same thing about HR and Financial roles. When they do the work for people, it becomes programmatic and not a way everyone does business. The businesses in the book organize work a very different way. They look nothing like today’s corporate functions. So a lot changes. Not just “not CSR.” There is more responsibility.

    What I mean by the last line, is when I grew up in a small town in Texas and was part of a very business driven family, they considered the effects of all their actions. They saw the customers and employees on Sunday at church and around town. Not that everyone operates that way, but that is how we work when we build caring into our business relationships. We do not need departments to do it for us. What were depts become resources to cross-capable teams who are attached to markets and customers. That is where they measure success. They ask, “do we make their lives healthier and more whole (including the life-giving aspects of ecology and society)?”. My experience is this way of working is FAR MORE demanding than the current targets and goals that are set.

    • Carol, though I don’t think that doing away with role is the right answer, I share many of your views and after reading your last words about family business cannot resist pointing you to this post I wrote on Father’s Day this year http://bit.ly/owYqXw Everything I Know About Corporate Responsibilty I Learned From my Dad !

  11. Marc,

    Interesting article, but why sensationalize with such a hyperbolic stance?

    By your logic, we shouldn’t have a CFO, as financial considerations should be suffused throughout the organization…

    C’mon, Marc.

    Bill Baue

    • Bill, it’s a catchy headline and an attempt to spark conversation, not an attempt to “sensationalize.” I hate dull writing. So sue me.

      Every public company has a CFO. Maybe even needs one by law.

      They don’t have Chief Quality Officers, Chief Efficiency Officers, Chief Sense of Purpose Officers. So why do we need CSR or sustainability execs and depts?

      Come to think of it, why not assign the CFO–who’s got real authority in most companies–to track social and environmental metrics as well?

      • Marc,

        I think you’re one of the best writers in this space, so I don’t mean disrespect. But I do think that you usually tend to be more nuanced than this post, which seemed polemical, talking down a whole swath of folks in the CSR field who do good and important work. In the end, I agree that it will be nice when we don’t need to have CSR departments, but instead have sustainability and responsibility suffused throughout the organization, but in the meanwhile, CSR is the way to get there. Or, looking at it from a slightly different angle, I don’t see us getting to a post-CSR world by scrapping CSR altogether, as that would more likely lead to a LESS sustainable and responsible situation.

        Your Chief Quality Officer proposal seems to me a red herring. The fact is that we DO have CFOs, AND we DO have CSOs (Chief Sustainability Officers), but we don’t have CQOs (chief quality officers), so I’d prefer to stick to the real world.

        And I fully agree that giving CFOs purview of CSR / sustainability issues is a GREAT idea, and in fact where the field is heading. I’m increasingly seeing articles discussing real-world cases of this.

        And truth be told, your “sensational” headline did work, and got me to read your article, as I admit I don’t always click through to everything you write, much as I value your writing (hey, I gotta work at least SOME of the time…)

        Best,
        Bill

  12. Marc,

    Bless you for triggering this conversation among folks who I respect immensely. It strikes me that, perhaps for effect, you’ve oversimplified things. This isn’t an either/or proposition. There are companies that indeed may not need formal CSR departments, if in fact resiliency vis-a-vis a changing environment and mobilizing/engaging workers at all levels are baked into the organizational structure. But there are other organizations that need some focal point for many of the issues that have been subsumed within the sustainability language and in many cases that’s the CSR or sustainability department. It can be created with strong CEO support and continuing engagement, and with a structure that fully engages and mobilizes others in the organization, or can be a token appendage that’s established more for outside appearance than internal change. Yes, there are serious problems with the language that so many of us use, but it’s also the case that there are multiple systems/structures that can and need to be used to move companies to better address shared problems that are currently stressing the earth’s natural systems.

    Rich Liroff
    Investor Environmental Health Network

  13. To me the key is not a dept or not, but whether the departments does all the thinking and work for people and therefore it is “their job” not mind. there is not chance of really innovative work without each person doing that thinking for themselves. Departments by their nature functionalize and fragment. That is the problem. They really exciting part is the stories in my book of DuPont, and many other companies who change the paradigm completely and have each and every person in every task every day, knowing the effect on all stakeholders. No functionalize approach produces that. It is not the form, dept or not, but the thinking it evokes —or does not.

  14. Good article adding to the ‘beyond CSR’ discussion.

    “Responsibility isn’t a set of metrics to be tracked or behaviors to be modified. It is central to both the purpose and prosperity of a business and must be pervasive in its practices.”

    Might we better say, “Responsibility is more than a set of metrics to be tracked or behaviors to be modified…”

    Metrics are an important to advancing transparency and accountability in institutional environments. Without them, there is the all-too-human tendency to focus on symbols of tribal virtue without a full and objective accountability of net impacts. Did we really reduce our total consumption of a resource or our total emission of a toxin? Or are we just making ourselves feel good by cherry-picking certain virtous actions while ignoring (possibly larger) offsetting ones? There is certainly more to life than baselining, goal-setting, and benchmarking, but there is also no sustainability without transparency.

    Think about that iconic image of a polar bear on an shrinking ice flow. That bear has a direct and urgent stake in how the metric of our net CO2e emissions impacts its metric of ice flow size. I suspect our polar bear would be very happy to see some short-term behavior modification in this regard.

    Porter & Kramer contrast “reputation-driven CSR initiatives” with “Successful collaboration will be data driven, clearly linked to defined outcomes, well connected to the goals of all stakeholders, and tracked with clear metrics.”

    References and more discussion at
    http://vertatique.com/quotcsr-deadquot-harvard039s-porter-advocates-shared-value

  15. Matt, great addition
    I am also very worried about what metrics we set- even when transparent. Most do not really tell us if we are affecting the bear on the ice flow.We measure too close in. I suggested a set of Life-giving measure that measure at the point of “effect” in the stakeholder’s life, rather that only or primarily at the point of the businesses outcome. e.g. reduced amount of water or energy, does not have enough line of sight to create real impact on the minds of those making decision. The business I worked with created teams that where connected to Lifeshed measures (watershed is a human centered idea). Then it become more real plus they have set them up and feel deep commitment to the Place. Businesses current measures further fragment and therefore making it abstract from real impacts like the floating polar bear.

  16. Yes, and it would be great if humans were peaceful and generous all the time.
    But that’s not how it has ever been nor ever will be. We all have to keep on working at it. So , just like there’ll will always be a “demand” for organized religion and ethics etc…., there is a need for those who choose to champion, guide, teach, etc….It’s as applicable for CSR as it is for anything else. The other plus side is that it’s a whole sector of employment opportunities ! You wouldn’t deny us that would you, in these tough economic times ? Hey, if we just could add right, maybe we won’t need accountants….someday…or if we just get rid of crime, lawyers….police….

  17. Kevin, I love your piece on learning about CSR from your Dad.It is very much the feeling I was trying to evoke. Yours is told so well and I would love to pass your story on with credit. It says it so well.

    Great “meeting” you here in this conversation.

  18. John Cook says:

    Matt,
    I think the issues you are discussing have been commonly been discussed by CSR practitioners for some time now. However, I think talking about getting rid of CSR is really shooting the messenger. The obstacle to the horizontal absorption of CSR is not, in my experience, a by product of the existence of CSR it is a very real struggle and resistance to change that occurs within organizations. Often it is middle management fighting trench warfare to protect the roles, responsibilities and resources of their departments that are the resistance points for internal change. If there is not a clear enough view (and resourcing) of the CSR integration goal coming from the top, then the process stalls and the CSR section becomes immobilized and kicking against an impervious wall of middle management. CSR practitioner are well aware of the issues and blaming CSR is short sighted and counterproductive. In fact it is replicating exactly what prevents csr from becoming a value driver in organizations.

  19. Marc,
    I like the idea of a future where CSR is necessary, but see the function as a necessary bridge to that future. (In essence, a CSR department’s goal should be to work itself out of a job.) The faster we get to that future, the better off we will likely be, but I think there are circumstances which will necessitate the function being a “going concern” for many companies. For now, the larger and more complex an organization is, the more likely they will need the CSR folks to act as the connective tissue to keep the organization properly aligned. As we learn to collaborate better, that need should melt away.

  20. This is a great discussion and I think the title was justified to attract the neccesary attention ! But with trepidation in front of two great thinkers and writers in the sustainability space, I have to continue to disagree :-)

    The answer in my view is to strengthen the profession.

    We need to put the role Corporate Responsibility Officer or Chief Sustainability Officer on a par with others in the C-suite.

    Professions with clout have an accepted understanding of their role, a body of knowledge, individual membership organization, certification, ethics code and more. In my view the answer to the issues raised in your post Marc is not to ditch the role, but to strengthen it. And it is up to those of us in the field to do that. On my own blog I have posted an introduction I wrote for the CROA’s Guidebook “Structuring and Staffing Corporate Responsibility” that explains this approach in a bit more detail.
    http://csrperspective.com/uncategorized/do-away-with-csr-no-way/

  21. Great discussion.

    I agree that CSR should be everyone’s job in a company, and not seen as separate. Built in; not bolted on. That’s showing up in reporting, too, as more companies are including sustainability info in their annual reports, instead of publishing a separate piece.

    Whether to staff the function or not — there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Sustainability agendas vary widely, depending on the industry, the size of the company, existing culture, risks and opportunities for that particular business.

    Some companies will be more successful with a dedicated CSR staff.

  22. Thanks to all–Bill B, Kevin, Chris, Rich Carol and others–you have made real contributions here. I have to say that the headline, whether we call it catchy or sensational, worked! Look for more to come.

    But seriously–we all want the same thing, in the end, and this discussion is about how to get there. I have huge admiration for most of the CSR professionals I know. They are fighting the good fight, and internal pressures for corporate change are vital. The best CSR professionals are not so much technocrats or experts as they are networkers and even “community organizers” who find ways to get lots of employees to push change from the bottom up.

    But the best CSR pros are only as good as the environment (meaning political and cultural environment) in which they operate. In that regard, I’d like to see more external pressures on business to change. More rabble rousing, even if that means fewer biz-NGO partnerships. A topic for another day….

  23. Interesting post Marc, but I think it needs to be unpacked a little bit. There’s a difference between the terminology and the function. I agree that the terminology is clunky and doesn’t quite capture the full sense of the concepts that the CSR field is grappling with.

    “Citizenship”, “social responsibility”, “sustainability”, “stakeholder” are all big words that contain many attributes and descriptors embedded within them, but at the same time, they leave out certain attributes that are important to the field, or they have different connotations in different peoples’ minds. As such, they are almost not useful per se, except in the absence of anything better. (Maybe we need some advertising talent to come up with the right words and menomic jingle. It would be a good challenge to put to the advertising industry.)

    So the terminology is clunky, but the problems are real. Companies need to build up trust and social capital, both within their organization and among their various constituencies, whether shareholders, neighbors, regulators, etc. Social capital management can mean the difference between getting a permit and getting your land expropriated.

    Externalities like the quality of schools, air quality, water quality, community safety, and other community development issues can affect site selection, employee retention, etc.

    These issues can cut across various job functions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require a certain kind of expertise to manage them. The reason CSR officers exist is because they deal with specific issues that affect the company’s performance with more expertise than anyone else within the company. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be hired. Now, their cost or benefit might not be well-priced or understood, but that doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.

    I can see doing away with those functions when line managers have increased their productivity and internalized these skill sets, but I think the numbers indicate that the trend is in the opposite direction. Companies are increasingly realizing that these are specialized skills, and operational managers don’t necessarily have the bandwidth, even if they have the expertise, to take all of them into account.

    So whether you call it social capital management, stakeholder relationship management, community investment, or some other jargon-y label, the function is going to continue to exist, and likely to become even more specialized in the future.

    Thanks for the provocative piece.

    SCJ

  24. The problem with CSR is that is is another instance of the “silver bullet” approach to management. This approach has not worked because there is no silver bullet, no add-on program or process that solves all of a company’s problems related to sustainability. The implementation of sustainability is a strategic choice, just like any other strategic choice such as being a low cost provider or focusing on premium niche products. In this way sustainability is similar to a TQM strategy as it requires a long term commitment to building relationships, self-renewal, and change management. However, sustainability is more complex than TQM as it is, at its core, an approach that requires capital growth – in all forms including ecological, social, and economic. The rub is that the company cannot own all of these forms of capital, and must decide where it wants to draw the line between capital owned by the commons and capital owned by the company. Of course management must be responsible, this is the core of all management practices. The key to sustainability is defining that responsibility in a way that enables the company to thrive in its industrial ecosystem even as that ecosystem is constantly changing.

  25. Veronica says:

    Thanks for the post and ensuing conversation. Interesting and reminds me of the University of Michigan professor who wrote the piece in the NY Times late last year which caused a similar dialog. It’s good to stir the pot and make sure we aren’t getting too relaxed in our pursuits!

    I can see both sides of the argument (and the grey areas in between) and think that we are trying to bucket a movement into a single point in time, and that is where the challenge occurs. Those of us working inside companies trying to move the CR agenda forward understand full well that it is a process that takes time. To say that we should abandon the progress we’ve made in favor of assuming a more utopian view seems a bit short-sighted. Having said that, I do agree that the measure of our success is a world where companies operate like responsible citizens – that is – all components of the company working in harmony to support the needs of society. The problem is – many companies are not at that point in their maturity. So – Kevin’s argument that we need to firmly put the CR agenda in the C-Suite is spot on and needed to ensure continued progress toward the utopian state.

  26. Yes. This is excellent Marc. That’s why I take issue with things like B-corporations. Who wants to invest in a B-corporation? I also think companies 50 – 70 years ago operated in fundamentally different ways than they have in the last 30-40 years. Arthur Andersen is a terrific example of a company that was run “sustainably” for most of its history. It was careful as to who it took on as clients, careful as to whom it hired, careful as to how fast it expanded – all in the interest of the mission of protecting the shareholders of the companies it audited. In doing all those things, it gained a stellar reputation and great financial success. When the mission changed to achieving target levels of revenue and income growth, all that “care” went out the window (and so did protecting shareholders), the business model became unsustainable, and the company eventually imploded.

    Thanks and I look forward to working with you again on BusinessClimate 2011. We have the co-author of “The Power of Co-Creation” Francis Gouillart joining us, and Zachary Karabell is coming back with his book “Sustainable Excellence. “Do you think Carol would be interested in the conference? Best, Andrew

  27. Hi Marc and thank you for putting into words the reasons why several of our students at Berkeley-Haas have accused me of being rather “anti-CSR” of late. While we’ve been teaching *integrating* or *embedding*corporate responsibility/sustainability for years now, it’s been tough to find examples of line managers and functional leaders implementing something that might be considered CSR as part of doing their day job. I’m hopeful (based on your post) that Carol’s book will be packed full of what Porter & Kramer might refer to as “shared value” examples that serve to prove to the next generation of business leaders we’re training, that they can “do CSR” without “responsibility” or “sustainability” in their job title.

    I agree most with your closing thoughts around *whole businesses* being responsible by nature. It’s even harder to find examples of companies that have successfully reinvented more than a smaller element of a larger and more complex whole. As I tell our students, while few companies have completely reinvented their whole business(es) to be good by nature, aligning with a company who clearly shares the same values as you do is a great place to start a flourishing relationship, and to Carol’s point, bring your most alive, creative and innovative self to work.

    Thanks again for providing such great fodder for my new Fall class: Driving Sustainability Through Business.

  28. Thanks Marc, Carol, and all who have commented.

    Suffice to day that the entire goal of the “CSR movement” should be to seek the kind of integration Carol and others are calling for. This is crucial. And it is also true that the intersection of business and society is so complex and dynamic that specialized attention to it will likely remain important, to augment integration, not supplant it.

    I’d like to make another point, however.

    These debates, “inside the CSR family,” tend to underline the importance of reaching the people who don’t even accept the idea that we have crucial questions to address about climate, water, human rights, and our consumption-based economy. The real battle to be waged is not about what we call this work, whether we need CSR departments, or the other “inside baseball” debates we often engage in.

    Economic pressures are rising, and a period of economic stagnation is likely to be with us for some time. The US Congress is now ignoring climate, and the eurozone is at risk of imploding. The sustainability agenda is at risk.

    In that context, there is rising pressure on all of us to demonstrate why companies that tie their success to the urgent needs of the wider world will win. Debates of interest only to this community won’t get the job done.

    This in many ways is the point that Carol is making. I think everyone on this string is in broad agreement with her.

    Let’s get on with the work of making it happen.

    • Thanks for this perspective, Aron. Which points to something I heard Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg say at the recent Slow Living Summit at the Marlboro Sustainability MBA in VT: “Stop the circular firing squad!”

      Marc, as you admit, those of us reading and discussing this post are all essentially in the same boat here. So why shoot ourselves in the foot with in-fighting? Weakening our own movement only strengthens external forces that resist both CSR departments AND integrated sustainability and responsibility at the core.

      That said, kudos to your sensational headline and framing for getting such a robust dialogue rolling!

  29. This is an excellent article and an even better discussion.

    I posted a reflection to my blog and newsletter (linked at http://www.natlogic.com/friend/) before reading all your comments. I may have a few more thoughts to add in response here as well, when I can find a moment.

    Thank you all for your thoughtfulness, and your palpable commitment to bigger, deeper more durable impact — in whatever we call this work!

    - Gil

  30. Thanks again to all–Aron, Bill, Gil and Jo.

    I agree–we shouldn’t expend more time and energy arguing about this inside the movement. Better to try to move forward and expand our forces.

    I think what I am hoping/dreaming for is that the CSR movement and the Milton Friedmanites (‘the only responsiblity of business is to profit’) can over time align around the idea that solving the world’s bigproblems, truly serving customers & workers & communities, engaging with (yuk) stakeholders, recognizing resource limits, managing risks — all the things that CSR pros bring to big companies — is the best way to build shareholder value in the long term.

    I also feel even more strongly after these comments that “sustainability” and not “responsibility” is the more compelling word to use, in part because it incorporates the idea of economic sustainability (growth, jobs, wealth). If the global economy is as fragile as it seems to be, that may have to be the focus of companies in the immediate future.

  31. I love this article. I too would like to see an end to CSR departments and use of the phrase. I strongly suspect they limit the positive social value a company can deliver by re-enforcing the view that companies can create financial value (and cause social damage) in one part of the building and then throw an amount of money to try and repair it in another. Much better to align (and quantify) long term financial value and social value wherever you can – whether you call this alternative approach shared value or, as Daniel Altman does, ‘single bottom line’ (!) http://dalberg.com/sites/dalberg.com/files/sblfinal.pdf.

    The key question is… if not CSR… then what? This all sounds good in theory, but without CSR departments, how else can we work with big corporates to keep pushing them to explore social value creation? I’ve blogged on this e.g. at http://shared-value-supply-chains.posterous.com/59266635- trying to find some practical ways for companies to integrate this new thinking into their daily practices.

    I’d be interested to hear thought on how something like this might be implemented…

  32. Thanks, Marc, for kicking off a truly stimulating and important discussion. I haven’t read every word of every comment here, but I think I’m somewhere between some of the positions.

    First, Marc and Carol, your comments suggest that you’re not really saying people like Kevin (a good friend of mine, as it happens, so thanks for being nice to him) should just shut down their CSR operations. I took what you mean to be something akin to this insight from the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (in his two-volume book “The Prophets”):

    “People think that to be just is a virtue, deserving honor and rewards; that in doing righteousness one confers a favor to society. No one expects to receive a reward for the habit of breathing. Justice is as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.”

    In other words, just do it, and do it not because it’s good p.r. or because “giving back” (a phrase that has always bugged me, sorry, folks) feels good. Do it because this is as natural a part of business as balancing the company checkbook or inventing and producing a new product, or whatever else businesses do (a “constant occupation”). Without having to cajole or make a big deal out of it, ensure that “responsibility” or “sustainability” (whatever you want to call it) is as reflexively or involuntarily a part of every business decision as the “habit of breathing.”

    I’m not saying that companies conduct CSR just for the public “rewards” they get for being good guys (though there’s some of that, some “hey, look how virtuous we are,” which has to annoy the people who have quietly and without recognition just done the right things most of their lives). As you, Marc, noted in “Faith and Fortune,” many companies — and certainly many of the people who work for them — just want to do good for the world, or at least refrain from doing harm. That’s it. Of course, others don’t care much about that, at least not now.

    But, Marc and Carol, given that corporate social responsibility is for many companies a relatively new way of approaching what they do, maybe for now we need clear metrics, milestones and, yes, rewards to help them acquire the “habit of breathing.” I’m sorry and a bit bothered that’s the necessary at this point in time. But maybe for now we need CSR functions that keep showing companies not only that it’s right to do this (many still need convincing) but also how to do it. Maybe the role of CSR at this time in history is like that of the “props” Emily Dickinson refers to in this poem:

    The Props assist the House
    Until the House is built
    And then the Props withdraw
    And adequate, erect,
    The House support itself
    And cease to recollect
    The Augur and the Carpenter –
    Just such a retrospect
    Hath the perfected Life –
    A Past of Plank and Nail
    And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
    Affirming it a Soul –

  33. This just keeps rolling. Love it.

    Actually, I have a very different reason for writing my book that may not be apparent from the direction this discussion has gone. We all share the same intentions on this string, no question. But my intention was to call attention to the fact that those inside the movement as well as those entering, need to rethink HOW they are working on it.

    It is not a matter of, as Bill Baue says, of getting on with. I am actually suggesting that the way it is being worked on, currently, is not, and probably cannot achieve our shared intention of making Earth, Community and all life healthier. So I am insisting on a dialogue within my community to consider a course correction- or evolution, a reeducation of our way of working, before, and as, we proceed.

    I am not at all interested in shooting any anyone. But I am very interested in calling into doubt and question the means and approaches being used, all with good intention. I believe we are using the same way of thinking to get out of the mess, that got us into the mess. e.g. fragmented thinking. And what we call systems thinking is not all all living systems thinking.

    I wrote an book to show a very different way, not more stories of the same way, not even really demanding to stop CSR depts, because I also give ways to evolve them. That is one paragraph in the book. The book is about how to change the way we do every thing related to CSR, Sustainability and to stop doing it the way we are if we are serious about our intentions.

    So if we just stop this conversation and continue with the way we are working now, with what we call best practices, and holding up the exemplars we use, and laying out the consulting practices we do, we will not get there. That is my belief.

    So please don’t invite us to stop talking to one another and get on with it, Marc. For anyone who reads my book and wants to really look at revolutionizing our movement, I would love to stay in this conversation. I say read the book so it saves me saying it all again which would be difficult to do as coherently and tell the stories of the 20 companies, only one of whom had as CSR officer or plan, as magnificently as they told them for me for the book. So Dan, you can see what else if not CSR dept. if you read these stories. And how they exceeded the achievement of most businesses with CSR depts.

    For me it is not arguing inside our movement, it is building our capacity to lead. And that takes critical thinking and engagement. I have no interest in arguing. But I have lots of interest in engaging to make our movement smarter and more effective and not in just doing more without reflection.

  34. hi all, great discussion (although one that recurs every few months). Personally, though, I do not feel that sensationalist headlines are justified or even helpful. They just keep us going around in circles, polarizing things which do not need to be polarized. I fail to see why we have to live in a world of either or. Can a business not ensure that responsibility for sustainability is embedded throughout the business at strateic and operational level AS WELL AS maintaining a CSR or Sustainability professional department to guide direction and be the resident “experts” for management? I believe the sustainability profession adds value to the business. If we stop seeing sustainability as a profession, we will stop seeing sustainability.
    elaine cohen

  35. I’m reading a lot here which seems very congruent with out own advocacy for ‘people-centered’ economics. For example where it begins, with a question:

    “At first glance, it might seem redundant to emphasize people as the central focus of economics. After all, isn’t the purpose of economics, as well as business, people? Aren’t people automatically the central focus of business and economic activities? Yes and no. ”

    In the core argument from the paper which the question above derives is a critique of free market capitalism and the assertion that:

    “Economics, and indeed human civilization, can only be measured and calibrated in terms of human beings. Everything in economics has to be adjusted for people, first, and abandoning the illusory numerical analyses that inevitably put numbers ahead of people, capitalism ahead of democracy, and degradation ahead of compassion. ”

    You’ll find me also on the Sustainable Business Forum and Economics in Transition.

  36. Paul Hess says:

    Carol, you write eloquently of a new concrete way of thinking about business and suggest a unifying vision, beyond what you call the existing fragmented ways of thinking and specialized departments for CSR. You stated the higher principles of caring for customers and employees and posed the crucial question: “do we make their lives healthier and more whole (including the life-giving aspects of ecology and society)? My experience is this way of working is FAR MORE demanding than the current targets and goals that are set.”

    The words “healthier and more whole” are a more concrete and inclusive language than CSR and sustainability because it begins to specify what we ought to be responsible for and what we want to sustain. These words would appeal more to customers who provide the revenue— world class business strategies are customer focused, even if many businesses still do not really get it.

    Most “green” purchases are motivated by the customer’s concern with health, which is mainly about toxicity. Those of the fragmented mindset might think health is one issue that poses a trade-off in time and attention. But there is another way to look it: health is a connector, not a separate issue for six reasons:
    First, health connects to the personal concerns of customers, both consumers and corporate consulting clients.
    Second, health is connected to energy that is toxic: oil and coal create air pollution including mercury, one of the deadliest toxins, and nuclear radiation that doesn’t go away.
    Third, health connects to economics: health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy and health insurance is the single largest cost of making an automobile.
    Fourth, dealing with environmental health toxicity is huge gap in health care in which doctors do not check for toxic body burden or know detoxification protocols. In fact, medicine often adds to the toxic body burden with medications that treat symptoms while contributing to the underlying problem. Addressing toxicity can improve medicine and lower costs by dealing with causes.
    Fifth, the importance of health is increasing with the steady rise in rates of most disease that are epidemic levels, especially for children. 1 in 6 children now have a developmental disability with autism being the largest group with known causes in toxicity. Parents with an autistic child are likely to spend every free minute trying to cure their child from being dysfunctional for the rest of their lives.
    Sixth, a focus on health can be integrated with business strategy to spur innovation in healthier products, capture revenue, lower costs, and raise productivity of employees and society.

    I can’t think of a better set of examples to illustrate the concept of a system. Add to that the customers already being focused on health and you have a strategic opportunity. It seems like the common folk might know something that some of the sustainability experts do not.

    Sustainability needs to be integrated with world class business strategy–the customer focus enables this. The customer focus also serves as one overall common goal to link all the objectives of stakeholders: The business goal of serving customers, when understood broadly as customer solutions, is about attending to human needs of all stakeholders. The business goal of serving customers complements broader social goals by stating things in human terms.

    Porter and Kramer’s term “shared value” articulates these connections in business terms and several people have used the term in this discussion. Shared value includes creating value for customers and value for other stakeholders. We can share economic value by sharing moral values of caring for people and creating healthier and more whole lives.

  37. Carol,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I agree that the current trajectory of action from the CSR community (not to mention the broader business community and society at large) is grossly inadequate for solving the vexing challenges we face. So I think we are probably in closer agreement than it seems from our rhetoric on the scale of the problems and the shortfalls in our current set of solutions. We have reason to be gravely worried.

    I think reasonable people can respectfully disagree about what constitutes the most promising path from this predicament. I think the “scrap CSR” angle makes sense from the perspective of noting that CSR as currently configured isn’t up to the task of solving our sustainability dilemmas. That said, as dubious as I am of CSR being able to solve things, I’m more dubious of the idea of scrapping CSR and starting anew. First of all, how in the world that would happen by choice is unclear. And secondly, the task of implementing an alternative system within the existing dynamics of ongoing global business operations seems Herculean.

    Deep down, I believe that radical change is mostly likely to come as a result of a significant disruption. I don’t see us enacting such radical change voluntarily, though this discussion (particularly with input from the likes of Gil, Laurance, Cary, etc… — in addition to yours and Marc’s) is forcing me to reassess whether we can enact some creative destruction on the CSR and broader business infrastructure.

    I tend to take the “pincers” approach that Marjorie Kelly of Tellus Institute has been writing about recently in advance of her new book. The image is of change coming from 2 directions — top-down (eg of corporate structure and practice) and bottom-up (grassroots, activist, etc…) change. Both are needed.

    Right now, I’m trying to push companies to deal with sustainability as vigorously as possible, essentially preparing our systems as much as possible for potential disruptive moments when we’ll need to reorganize quickly, and depend on the pathways established by slogging away on CSR along the way.

    Again, I so appreciate this thread, as it’s forcing me to question my assumptions and beliefs.

    Best,
    Bill

  38. Marc,
    Thank you for creating such wonderfully fertile ground to mobilize the conversation, which, as Elaine points out re-occurs regularly. But, there is something different about this conversation, perhaps it is the buoyancy offered by Carol’s book and the repeat contributions of others (Bill B and Kevin). One thing is certain: I can’t help but relive some of my own experience over the past 25 years or so as I have scrolled my way to this point.
    As an advocacy champion of social change in a large international development organization, my small team and I routinely felt ‘tolerated’ by the fundraising team (the profit centre in the not-for-profit sector) in the organization. And to the fundraisers I am sure we often felt like the “pebble-in-the-shoe”. Without us and the credibility we helped bring to the organization, the fundraising team might not have been able to generate the revenue it did. Indeed, were it only about raising funds, the organization might have ceased to exist a long time ago.

  39. Matt Polsky says:

    The surprising good news here is that so many not only agree we need transformation of business, they actually mean it. I haven’t seen the former among the great majority of sustainable business consultants, CSR practitioners, CSO’s, or almost anyone in the field. And while I’ve heard a lot of token mention of the latter, it usually turns out to be dressed up “incrementalism.”

    However, I must agree with the minority of the commentators who don’t care for what they call the “sensationalism” of the title (“Let’s do away with CSR”). To me, it resembles a tabloid headline.

    Yes, it wasn’t dull, it increased readership and led to many quality responses. But even the main author and referenced author, Carol Sanford, conceded the existence of nuances in the “Comments” section. So there’s some over-reaching. And beyond the title, are we seriously considering “ditching” “the idea that stakeholders deserve a say in how to run a business;” or “doing away with CSR conferences,” and all the learning and productive frustrations that occur there?

    In addition, a casual observer might look just at that headline and file it away as not just a shot at CSR, but an attack on the whole legitimacy of business moving towards sustainability. In New Jersey, nearly all focus is on restoring the economy through less regulation, less environmental protection, with no mentions of CSR, transformation, shared value, or almost anything progressive. Why take the chance of creating a misunderstanding that the author is defending business-as-usual (when he is not)?

    This is not the only example we’ve recently seen in the green business press of excess provocation—and this is coming from a provocateur! Let’s nip this in the bud, and save it for when it’s actually needed. Nuance doesn’t have to be boring, and that’s probably where the subsequent conversation will take us anyway.

    Further, building on what as at least some commentators said:

    • The CSR function does not have to stay limited to a silo. While we may not currently see how, there’s no reason it can’t evolve into the core business if the desire is present and enough managers and staff are pulling it there.
    • Similarly, there’s no obvious resolute reason that CSR can’t lead to transformation of at least some companies.
    • Doing away with all CSR-related tools (however limited they are—and it was a good contribution by Carol to point this out), probably does not get us closer to transformation in the bulk of cases. It is very risky to proceed without them.

    We’re still in the early years of sustainable business. We should be humble about what it will take, and learn from the different approaches to getting there—particularly as we are now clearly raising the bar towards transformation.

    In addition, and a few dissenters said forms of this too, why would we even want to fully decentralize sustainability thinking in the company, or as I’ve often heard from CSO’s: “work my way out of a job?”

    Even if a prerequisite spreading of sustainability literacy through-out the product lines occur, there are still problems of multidisciplinary shortcomings, depth, and recency. There’s no reason at this time to think the value added potential of sustainability practices, either environmentally or economically, has a finite end point. Things will continue to evolve, both in the political economy, the understanding of ecosystems, the opportunities, the incentives, and especially the pitfalls. These things won’t necessary be easy to absorb, communicate, and, as the case may be, take advantage of or avoid.

    You’re always going to need someone or a function to stay ahead. Some among the CSOs and CSR practitioners will someday be recognized as society’s next generation of heroes. Let’s not shut them down, but empower them with vision, ideas, help from other parts of the company and from stakeholders, and whispers of encouragement when the load of frequent, but hopefully only temporary failure gets a little too heavy.

    Finally, regarding the remark about the human relations function, while the thought just before it was admirable, we shouldn’t assume leadership can’t come from there as well. My Fairleigh Dickinson University, Institute for Sustainable Enterprise colleague, Jeana Wirtenberg, would say: “HR is in a unique position to support, train, coach, enable and inspire all managers and leaders to play a key role in building and sustaining sustainable enterprises. In such enterprises, people are treated with respect and dignity, and are provided with a wide variety of development opportunities where they can grow and contribute to not only their company’s success, but to find meaning and contributions to society and the world.”

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  1. [...] = {"data_track_clickback":true};Marc Gunther wrote an excellent blog post earlier this week titled Let’s Do Away with CSR that has created much discussion. While I agree with many of the sentiments in Marc’s post, and [...]

  2. [...] a thought-provoking post, Mark Gunther suggests that CSR is a distraction. He recommends a new book by Carol Sanford calledThe [...]

  3. [...] approach, “e.g. from a CSR department or officer to how we do business in everything.”  Sanford told Marc Gunther in an interview that “with a focus on CSR, you get officers, you get programs, you get incentives. If you are [...]

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