What’s wrong with CSR?

15 Feb

Please note: this is not a principled attack on corporate social responsibility. Who would argue in favour of corporate irresponsibility? Certainly not Milton Friedman, whose famous attack on CSR remains a very potent one.

My objections come from two perspectives: the name is wrong, and the history is wrong.

Let's start with history.

Cadbury CSR is often presented as a towering achievement of late twentieth century stakeholder capitalism, and therefore as a grown-up strategic justification for public relations.

This narrative fails adequately to respond to the fate of such cynical cheerleaders for CSR as Enron.

It also airbrushes out the pioneering achievements of nineteenth century capitalists such as Sir Titus Salt, whose Saltaire near Bradford, begun in the 1850s, is now a World Heritage Site. Or Bournville in Birmingham or New Earswick in York – housing developments by two Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury's and Rowntree's, for their factory workers.

Sure, there was something paternalistic about these Christian capitalists who encouraged improving activities (institutes, schools, church, chapel or meeting house) over perceived bad practices (public houses).

But the advocates of CSR do not deny the rights of donors to pick their causes for maximum and sustained social impact.

What's wrong with the name?

People have been moving away from 'social' responsibility because of the rise of the environmental agenda – preferring instead the broader 'corporate responsibility' to refect the triple-bottom-line of 'people, planet, profits'.

The Stockholm Accords have thrown out the whole idea and replaced it with one word – sustainability. The Accords allow for both interpretations of this word: sustainable organisational success within a sustainable environment.

Then there's the question of sustained legacies. Companies and organisations decline; people die; but a Peabody, a Rowntree or a Carnegie lives on through their legacies. Where are the great philanthropists from the twentieth century? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet head the list, but their achievements will belong to this present century.

Time for some perspective, please.

4 Responses to “What’s wrong with CSR?”

  1. Paul Seaman 15/02/2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Your remarks on CSR are spot on.
    As to sustainability, it is fine and important when it comes to profit – as the banks learned the hard way. But as to the rest its value appears to be that it is an ill-defined almost meaningless term that can mean whatever you want it to mean. The truth is that the only constant is change and disruption knocks sustainability for six – nothing therefore is really sustainable forever (ask Mr Mubarak).

  2. TSOU, HSIN-PEI 16/02/2011 at 9:00 am #

    I think though people have been moving out from social, they still feedback related with social as environment as you said.

  3. Ben Smith 21/02/2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Totally agree. CSR just has not had the impact it should have had. But I agree, nothing wrong with the concept, the way CSR has been implemented that has been the failure.
    Only a re brand and a move away from corporate speak can save it now!

  4. Tom Murphy 22/02/2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Interesting post Richard.
    I am somewhat torn on this one. While I agree with much of what you’ve written I wonder if we risk getting caught up on the nomenclature. For example there’s a lot of discussion around the adoption of the term ‘Corporate Citizenship’ – particularly in the US.
    There are many elements to what we describe today as CSR, so finding a suitable name/term is challenging. Personally I’m a big fan of calling things what they are and I think sustainability fails that test – how do you define it in a way that incorporates the growing breadth of areas involved?
    Of course, as is often the case, we’ll eventually agree on a term whether that’s CSR, CR, Sustainability or Citizenship. The key will be having clear definitions of what’s expected.

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