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Back to the future for CSR professionals?

June 2013

For nearly two decades I have been privileged to lead many of The Co-operative Group’s excellent ethical and environmental programmes. The Co-operative Bank’s charismatic md, Terry Thomas, first drew me in to Europe’s largest consumer co-operative back in 1994. My brief was to embed ecological sustainability and to push forward what was already a radical agenda. It was a time of change and optimism. Political change and economic prosperity was in the air. More to the point, a new phase of CSR was kicking-in; although in retrospect, it had a distinctly amateurish feel to it.

Most of the opposite numbers I met were amiable old men at the end of their careers who had been shunted sideways from roles in human resources or public affairs.


How things have changed. At the top end of CSR (and I know it’s not fashionable to say so) matters have improved fantastically. I look back on some of the things The Co-operative Group was commended on in those early years and cringe – was our threadbare first Sustainability Report of 1998 really commended as the best in Europe; did we really stick 17 micro-wind turbines on a low-rise building in the centre of Manchester and expect to kick-start a new renewable energy sector?


I believe that the next phases of CSR and sustainability will involve leaders ‘Standing up for what’s right’ and ensuring that laggards and free-riders don’t undermine the more progressive business models. The ‘business case’ for CSR will never be strong enough to support an isolated business in its competition against the unscrupulous.


And that’s why, after nearly twenty years, I’ve left what is possibly one of the cushiest CSR jobs out there. I want to focus on helping more business become a vocal force for good – one that recognises that not all legislation is cumbersome red tape. The Co-operative has more than done its bit. It was out there in 2008 raising the issue of neo-nicotinoid pesticides and unconventional fossil fuels when most mainstream environmental groups wouldn’t touch the subjects (I was told that they were ‘too complex’). Now look, we have a two-year temporary embargo against certain neonics applications, and the possibility of a European Fuel Quality Standard that would effectively bar tar sands.


The last thirty years have seen a hallowing out of Government across the world, but particularly in the UK - together with a parallel reluctance of legislators to legislate. In order to plug this hole in societal governance, business is called on to work voluntarily and collectively to solve problems, with many politicians reduced to the role of mere award presenters. The next waves of CSR and sustainability heroes need to be (will be!) out and out campaigners. They will be brave, articulate and hark back to the great Victorian interventionists; the likes of Robert Owen, John Cadbury and William Lever. More significantly, they will act as a tipping point in the battle for a more sustainable economy.

Paul Monaghan, director, Up the Ethics, email: paul@uptheethics.com 




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