Unsuitable Saviors

July 28th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

If you go by the agenda of Koch Industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, big business is obsessed with cutting taxes, weakening regulation and denying the existence of global warming.

The truth is more complicated. For more than a decade, most large U.S. corporations—including the likes of Wal-Mart, Chevron and Goldman Sachs—have been ardent proponents of the principles of corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Like many of their European and Japanese counterparts, they profess to be leaders in a global movement to address the climate crisis, raise the living standards of the planet’s poorest and otherwise make the world a better place.

As London-based CSR evangelist Wayne Visser argues in his new book The Age of Responsibility, that movement is in crisis. The hypocrisy of espousing enlightened views while letting trade associations such as the Chamber lobby for Neanderthal ones is the least of it.

Despite the enormous resources and influence of the companies pushing it, CSR has done little to alleviate the larger problems it has taken on. As Visser puts it: ”At the macro level, almost every indicator of our social, environmental and ethical health is in decline.” He continues:

At worst, CSR in its most primitive form may be a smokescreen covering up systematically irresponsible behavior. At best, even the most evolved CSR practices might just be a band-aid applied to a gaping wound that is hemorrhaging the lifeblood of the economy, society and the planet.

As a long-time critic of CSR, my response to this diagnosis is: amen. However, I quickly part ways with Visser when it comes to a prescription for what to do next.

Visser spends much of his 366-page text arguing, essentially, that the antidote to failed CSR is more CSR. He never puts it quite that simply. Visser is a management consultant, after all, and he has to dress up his analysis with endless bullet points and matrices (many parts of the book read like powerpoint presentations).

At the center of all the jargon is the thesis that the world needs a new version of corporate social responsibility (actually, he prefers the phrase corporate sustainability and responsibility) which he dubs CSR 2.0.

This new approach is said to be based on five principles:  Creativity, Scalability, Responsiveness, Glocality and Circularity.

Visser devotes a chapter to each of these, and the result is exasperating. His exegesis is full of platitudes and buzz words: “thinking outside the box,” “setting audacious goals,” “cross-sector partnerships,” “think global, act local,” “cradle to cradle” (rather than just cradle-to-grave) assessments of the environmental impact of products, etc.

What’s also bewildering is that Visser points to numerous companies that, he maintains, have already been putting into practice his principles that are supposedly the wave of the future. Among them are many of the usual CSR suspects: Google, Wal-Mart, The Body Shop, Nike, Patagonia and the mining giants BHP-Billiton and Anglo American.

What, then, is really new about CSR 2.0? The only thing that strikes me as novel is Visser’s call for making CSR “systemic” or “holistic”—yet this is where the entire concept of CSR, it seems to me, breaks down.

It is understandable to want to attack problems in a more comprehensive way, but it is not clear, to me at least, that large corporations are the appropriate primary vehicle for addressing the climate crisis, air and water pollution, global poverty, diseases such as AIDS/HIV, child labor and sweatshops.

For one thing, transnational corporations have played a significant role in creating or at least exacerbating some of these crises—and they may have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Even where this is not the case, why would we want to give a leadership role to institutions that are inherently undemocratic and exist primarily to enrich a small portion of the population? Corporations should certainly clean up their own act, but there is no reason to put them in charge of everything.

Much of CSR can be seen as an attempt to replace rigorous government regulation with limited voluntary initiatives that companies also use for public relations purposes. The answer is not a more ambitious form of CSR, as Visser suggests. We need less emphasis on corporate responsibility and more on corporate accountability—on corporations being held to account by government and organizations representing all of society. That’s a 2.0 that would truly make a difference.

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