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Is CSR Dead? Long Live CSR!

June 29 2015

The following tweet caught my eye a few weeks back: We can put the "CSR" name out to pasture. It linked to an article by John Paluszek from Business in Society [May 18, 2015] entitled, "Goodbye CSR, Hello New Normal." In it, Paluszek makes the following statement:

  • "CSR" has served us well for several decades, but now it's time to go. Having been involved with CSR since the 1970s, parting is painful - but necessary. So many companies around the world have integrated the near-genius concept of doing-good-while-doing-well into their DNA that the distinction no longer resonates. Today - and tomorrow - in an interdependent, inter-connected and inter-active world of many kinds of stakeholders, any notion of a CSR department is obsolete.

It's a compelling argument - almost a victory lap - but a flawed one. A bit like saying that since everyone in a company needs to act in compliance with rules and regulations that there no need for a compliance or legal department. Or, because everyone needs to follow basic human resource practices that there's no need for an HR department. Or, that good communications should be everyone's responsibility so do away with the communications department.

Paluszek seems to recognize this flaw by going on to state:

  • Granted there has to be a steward of so vital a management function and that steward must operate at the interface of the company and its many stakeholders. But the panoply of current business-in-society commitments has to be owned and operated by everyone in the company.

Paluszek references a series of articles by Michael Townsend that also assert that the concept of CSR as a stand-alone department inside a company is dead. In a January 12, 2015 posting, Townsend quotes Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, as stating that "leading companies already are going way beyond CSR by integrating sustainability into everything they do in recognition that business cannot succeed if society fails." Bakker urges us "to innovate - to align with facts, to redesign what we mean by good performance and to get inspired by new definitions of success."

Townsend does admit that while Bakker's argument may be compelling, "reports on the early demise of CSR yet may prove to be somewhat exaggerated." "While there is more noise than ever, there is a huge question mark over how much of this [CSR thinking and practice] translates into meaningful action," says Townsend. "What is the impact of CSR, and the extent and depth of real change for the better?"

Townsend goes on to list a litany of problems in the world on which he asserts there has been little progress. Gas emissions have grown nearly twice as fast over the past decade when compared with the previous 30 years. We are extracting 50 percent more natural resources than was the case only 30 years ago. Fewer than five percent of 40,000 CSR reports from around the world make references to planetary or ecological limits.

Given Townsend's assertion that companies are unable to unwilling to tackle these major ecological issues, he predicts that CSR will be dead "quite soon." His reasoning? "CSR is, at best, only a partial solution, which can be misused to create an illusion of responsibility while delivering very little real change," he states. "There is a (sustainable) world of difference between reporting and looking good, as compared with the more earnest, but necessary, task of transforming our businesses and economics."

While Paluszek and Townsend's arguments are provocative, and many companies are moving toward integrating sustainability and social responsibility into their core operations, their predictions of CSR's demise don't really stack up with the reality of how companies operate today. With increasing demands for transparency, disclosure, reporting, results and impact, there is simply no way for companies to provide the necessary focus on the public's expectations without someone - or a group of someone's - to attend to it. Even Townsend seems to admit this by concluding:

  • CSR has served a purpose in creating a staging post for where we are now, but it is not, and never could be, the end game. We should never expect CSR to provide all the answers. Building a good staging post is arguably a good result.

Is CSR an important function within a company or simply a "staging post?" If you have a thought or comment, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

Please note: CSR Now! will be taking a four-week summer break. We'll return on July 27, 2015.


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