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Breathing new life into the CSR debate?

November 2015

Catch me on a bad day and I’m likely to be as critical as anyone of current formulations of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Ironic, then, that I was invited to champion the ‘No’ side of the argument when a recent Barclays Debate addressed the question ‘Is CSR Dead?’ The event was chaired by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts—and it produced an unexpected outcome, writes John Elkington, co-founder & chairman of Volans.

The proposition that the CSR agenda is dead was advanced by #TeamMark: Mark Kramer of FSG and the Shared Value Initiative, and Janet Voûte, global head of public affairs at Nestlé. Tough competition. With the Volkswagen debacle hanging over our heads, it was hard to see this turning out well for #TeamJohn—featuring yours truly and, riding shotgun, Patrick Thomas, ceo of Covestro (the former Bayer MaterialScience).

When Matthew took an initial audience poll, it was calculated that the room was 51% to 49% in favour of CSR being alive—though the actual vote was a few points higher, to CSR’s advantage.

In summary, #TeamMark argued: While CSR is a wonderful concept, unfortunately the way it works in practice falls short. To create transformational change, where companies become vehicles for social progress rather than harm, you have to get to the core of the business, to the CEO, to the business strategy. CSR is very rarely aligned to the culture, purpose and fundamental strategy of the company.
They continued: We don’t have time to convince companies to bring in values that ought to be important but which are not yet truly valued by the market in financial terms. Shared Value says there is opportunity for real profit and improved bottom line by pursuing new avenues that address your environmental footprint and by developing products that meet social needs in the populations you serve.

And #TeamJohn’s response? CSR is a deep-rooted, ongoing conversation across sectors about the role of business in society. It has been with us for a long time already and, very likely, it will be with us for a long time into the future. That said, it certainly has its problems. You need only look at Volkswagen, or the Dow Jones Sustainability Index’s ranking of VW as a sector leader just days before the crisis hit. So does that wipe out the case for CSR? Hardly. A few failures are no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

CSR is not dead, we concluded, but there is a big question about whether it is fit for purpose. Values tend to drift. Think about Barclays itself, with its founding Quaker values, but recent travails have impacted both reputation and the bottom line. At its best, effective CSR delivers Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency and Sustainability—but the lead has to come from the top.
I suspect many CSR professionals were on tenterhooks when the final vote came, feeling that the Shared Value agenda must have made up some ground. But when Matthew gave the results from the room and the online audience, we were stunned to hear that the needle had swung to 75% in favour of our ‘Undead’ position.

In truth, the question posed is one where Mark and I were probably aligned from the outset. I see Shared Value as having a crucial role [in what/for what]. But as an approach that stresses Win-Win outcomes, rather than Win-Win-Win (Triple Bottom Line) outcomes, it by definition fails to deal with the Win-Lose challenges that are shot through the wider sustainability debate.

So, inevitably, the debate continues.

Volans | UK & NI Ireland | CSR

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