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Don’t obsess about business case, says Elk

April 2010

CSR proponents should avoid focusing too much on developing the business case for socially responsible behaviour, the leading CSR thinker John Elkington has warned.

Elkington told last month’s Base conference that attempting to detail the business benefits of corporate responsibility is ‘a slightly slippery and treacherous path’ that is not always helpful, partly because circumstances change so quickly.

‘I think the business case is useful, but we have to beware of over-using it,’ he said. ‘There was a strong business model for companies such as ICI and Dupont to use products containing CFCs in the 1970s and early 1980s. But satellites weren’t programmed to look at the ozone layer, and when ozone depletion was discovered, then their business case [for using CFCs] fell apart. So let’s be quite careful about business cases, about how robust our thinking is. We build our blind spots into our software and our systems.’

Elkington, who started the SustainAbility think tank and has recently co-founded a consultancy called Volans, told delegates at the two-day London event that you can find a business case for almost anything if you believe in it strongly enough.

He recalled: ‘Plantation owners made a business case for slavery, and in the 1930s there was a strong economic case for putting people into concentration camps. At different points in our collective history we create business cases that almost do what we want them to do.’  He said changes in thinking move the goalposts constantly, and that waiting for a business case to emerge can be a barrier to progress.

‘I don’t think GSK have a real business case for what they are doing on opening up their drugs to the developing world,’ he said. ‘I just think they feel there is an opportunity there and they will see where it takes them. We don’t know what the future will look like, so we need some of the Wright brothers’ spirit. We just need to go out there and do things without necessarily having a business case for doing so.’

Elkington, who was voted the world’s number one CSR ‘thought leader’ in a poll last year (EP10, issue 11, p5), acknowledged this was easier for entrepreneurs to do than large companies.

He said many big businesses ‘have done some really spectacular work on CSR’ but cannot assume the benefits they glean from this will continue. ‘We are headed into difficulties and we’ve got to destroy much of our industrial economy and build something new over the next 25 years,’ he said. ‘I don’t think today’s business cases understand that. So to that extent they are almost irrelevant.’

Other speakers agreed that emphasising the bottom-line benefits of behaving responsibly is not always a good use of time, especially when a company has already made CSR progress.

‘I haven’t talked about the business case for a long time,’ said Peter White, associate director for corporate sustainable development at Procter & Gamble. ‘If there really is a business case, why spend all your time writing about it and researching it? Just do it. And I think that’s happening now – people in companies are just doing it rather than trying to justify it all the time.’




John Elkington | Global | Triple Bottom Line

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