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: [click to continue…]