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Corporate social responsibility is dead!



Some organizations might be happy to hear that, but it’s not what you think. According to Kelly Hawke Baxter, executive director of The Natural Step Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving sustainability in business, corporate social responsibility (CSR) was never that big a deal to begin with. It was a stopgap measure that allowed unsustainable companies to clothe themselves in robes of virtue.

Companies that are leading the sustainability revolution are those that see sustainability as a key business strategy and driver of innovation. Those companies are not asking, “Based on our business plan, what should our CSR strategy be?” but rather, “In light of sustainability, what should our business plan be?” … It’s about inventing a completely different kind of future.

Long live CSR?

So CSR might be nearing the end of its life as we know it, or maybe it was never really more than a masquerade of marketing and public relations in the first place.

But what about all those reports that find organizations that commit to CSR enjoy all kinds of benefits? These effects appear to manifest mainly within organizations, but have limited effect on the underlying problems that CSR aims to address:

  • Respect for human rights
  • Protection of the local and global environment
  • The impact of business operations on communities (e.g., through displacement) and particular groups such as indigenous peoples
  • Avoiding bribery and corruption
  • Consumer protection

In other words, “It’s not enough to be adding environmental and social priorities to a business-as-usual agenda. It’s not enough to be doing less bad by being more eco-efficient, but still headed in an unsustainable direction.”

So what does a post-CSR sustainable business look like? Sustainability advocate Bob Willard says:

A sustainable company is one that cleans up its act, neutralizes its environmental and social impacts, and leaves the world the way it found it, or better. It achieves net zero energy, net zero waste, net zero water, net zero pollution, net zero materials—net zero everything. At least. And it steps up to the gnarly issue of economic and social justice to ensure more equitable attainment of a high quality of life for its stakeholders.

The government, for its part, has shown no sign of legislating social responsibility for business, aside from basic environmental and employment standards. (Although, one might argue that Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is the type of broad social engineering that CSR advocates call for.) The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade refers to CSR as “non-binding approaches to promote responsible business conduct”.

What do you think? The descriptions above sure sound like the type of behaviour that would lead to positive social outcomes. But is it possible or realistic for business to undergo this shift? Is it the job of business to promote social or environmental goals? Will the government ever impose overarching CSR regulations?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Editor at First Reference
Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.), is a researcher, content provider and editor. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks and Internal Control blogs, HRinfodesk and other First Reference publications. His areas of focus include broad human resources issues, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance and government policies, information technology and labour market trends.Read more
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