Strategy, Leadership & Development

We’re Defining CSR All Wrong, And It’s Costing Us | Jason Wicks

5 months ago

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We’re Defining CSR All Wrong, And It’s Costing Us | Jason Wicks

One thing that has long since been agreed on is that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is of growing importance. However, I can’t help but think that many people, even some CSR professionals, are defining it incorrectly.

As a result, we tend to hear about how ‘CSR is dead’, or how it needs replacing in some way.

That simply isn’t true.

Teething problems

I admit, because CSR is now significantly more ‘mainstream’ than it was just 10-20 years ago, certain challenges are starting to arise. Firstly, with every company claiming to be socially responsible, how can consumers ever know who is actually doing enough?

There’s no denying that CSR is changing.

As more firms adopt and implement CSR strategies, consumers come to expect more and more. What might have been viewed as fantastic CSR in 1998 may now be seen as embarrassingly insufficient.

In my opinion, whilst business leaders and CSR professionals must adapt to these changing standards, it is also the job of CSR academics, researchers and ‘experts’ to propose some guidance for them to do so. So far, I can’t help but think that such attempts have so far been unsuccessful.

“What might have been viewed as fantastic CSR in 1998 may now be seen as embarrassingly insufficient.” 

As will hopefully become clear, this has largely been due to the definition we’ve been using.

CSR | Jason Wicks

Creating shared value (CSV)

Generally speaking, the ‘expert’ response to the changing nature of CSR has been to replace it with a newer, fresher concept that is more applicable in the modern business environment.

In 2006, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer started to do exactly that, before finally coining the term ‘Creating Shared Value’ (CSV) in 2011. Their argument largely revolved around the idea that traditional CSR was a cost to a business, implying that ‘doing good’ and being profitable were mutually exclusive.

If companies helped society, they would lose money, and if they maximised profit, they would harm society. CSV was therefore introduced as a way of suggesting that firms could do both at the same time.

Total societal impact (TSI)

Fast forward to 2018, and a similar idea is being put forward. In a recent Ted talk, social impact strategist Wendy Woods argued that CSR is no longer adequate, largely because it isn’t intended to scale.

In essence, Woods suggested that CSR might sound all well and good, but it represents a cost for organisations, and will be the first thing to be cut during periods of decline or instability. It’s pretty much the exact same point that Porter and Kramer made in 2011. The only difference however, is that Woods has argued that the solution can be phrased as Total Societal Impact (TSI).

Realistically, both TSI and CSV are pretty much interchangeable. These concepts both argue that businesses need to achieve commercial and societal success at the same time, and they have both been presented as the much needed ‘replacements’ to CSR.

Personally, I find such an approach incredibly frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully admire all three of these individuals, and whole-heartedly agree with their diagnosis of the problem, I just fail to see any genuine value from their solutions. Here’s why:

Corporate Jargon | CSR Jason

The definition of CSR

Before anybody can convince me that CSR needs replacing, they’ll have to somehow change its definition.

To me, CSR is not a specific set of activities or behaviours, it’s the overarching idea that companies should make society better.

That’s it. It literally is that simple.

What I would argue then, is that when Kramer, Porter and Woods say that CSR is no longer good enough, what they should really be saying is that firms are no longer good enough at CSR.

Effectively, we’re defining CSR as the output of companies trying it, not as the concept underlying their attempts.

As I said before, what might have been sufficient in the past is not good enough in today’s world of higher consumer expectations, so we need to help businesses be ‘better’.

However, to me at least, doing so does not require us to create a brand new concept, but simply evolve the existing one. It’s only when we define CSR so narrowly that we are forced to create something completely unique. When CSR is simply seen as the idea that companies should benefit society, then we just need to help them realise that doing so now requires a slightly different approach.

when Kramer, Porter and Woods say that CSR is no longer good enough, what they should really be saying is that firms are no longer good enough at CSR.

In short, the argument that businesses need to benefit society and be commercially successful at the same time is one I completely support. I’ve literally just written a book on it. All I’m saying is that it’s an idea that sits quite firmly within a broader, more holistic view of CSR as a concept.

A time for pragmatism

When I think about what the ultimate ‘goal’ is when it comes to writing about CSR and explaining how it should be implemented, I’m pretty confident that it relies heavily on pragmatism. We want businesses to make the world better, and we want to show them that doing so isn’t actually that difficult.

With most companies on board with CSR, surely it makes more sense to evolve and expand it’s scope as opposed to replace it every time we encounter a problem. How can we expect business owners and leaders to take it seriously when it’s CSR one day, CSV the next and TSI after that. With some people already criticising these activities as corporate buzzwords, it seems logical to avoid giving them further ammunition.

“Right now, what we need are more actions, not more acronyms.”

Verdict: 

It’s so important to reiterate that CSR is fundamentally different now than when it was introduced. It used to just be about the occasional philanthropic activity to get in consumer’s good books, but now it’s about so much more. As customers start to look out for socially responsible companies when making purchasing decisions, it becomes possible for firms to make the world a better place and be commercially successful at the same time.

Overall, I think we’re very much at a turning point in the world of CSR. We’re in a sweet spot where it is too late to deny its importance, but not too late to do something about it. Of course we need to help businesses implement CSR in a way that is desirable for everybody, but we can do that within the overarching parameters that it currently provides us.

Right now, what we need are more actions, not more acronyms.

There’s plenty more where that came from:

The book is perfect for:

  • CSR professionals
  • CSR consultants
  • Small/Medium sized business owners
  • Social entrepreneurs
  • Business/CSR students

After reading this book, you will understand:

  • What ‘successful CSR’ really means
  • The three criteria that firms must meet to achieve this success
  • How each of these three criteria can be implemented

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Hi! I’m an author and blogger within the fields of social impact and responsible business. I believe that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and this website contains my thoughts on how that can work.

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