Known through its acronym of CSR, Corporate responsibility with its social and environmental focus has, in my opinion, created one of the most absurd and contradictory business models ever employed. With the gulf between peoples, NGOs, corporates and governments sustainable thinking seeming to get wider and wider, how can such a business model, that is based on subjective ideals, ever reach sustainable outcomes? Sustainability can only ever be achieved with a collective opinion, or consensus. That consensus comes from collaboration and engaging all stakeholders, a move away from the profit dominated economics of GDP to more circular economies. To achieve that, we need robust business models, not ideals.
We only need to look at the state of our oceans, our earth’s diminishing biodiversity and the poverty so many people still live in and compare to the long-term global success of business to see that CSR needs to be assigned to the commercial waste bin. But, I would argue that we don’t incinerate it, or let it decay in the landfill of business ideals; we actually should look to recycle it. Maybe there is a CSR future. It could still work. It could build towards sustainable outcomes. We just need to innovate our contentious acronym, shift the focus of the ‘R’ from the relative ideals of responsibility to represent a robust process – that of resilience. Recycle the model of CSR to be one that works with circular economies, so that CSR represents corporate social and environmental resilience.
The ageing CSR responsibility model has brought us to a juncture, it has served a purpose tip-toeing from early philanthropic ideals in the nineteenth century to current times. Of course, it would be churlish to just say it has completely failed. There have been successes, most notably in the travel industry where I was a Senior Manager, Board Director and Entrepreneur for over 25 years. The industry has looked to engage local communities and mitigate impacts on the environment. Yet, even from these successes I would ask, can there ever be consensus by relying on strategies that employ mainly voluntary and relative ideals? Will consensus ever be achieved where subjective ideals are used as a strategic model? Surely, one person’s responsibility is another’s irresponsibility?
Although most people, in their personal lives, would like to aspire to a set of responsible values or to build some sort of a moral compass, corporations have to act out on a different stage. On the one hand they perform as profiteers, to provide market standard products and services, and to accommodate shareholder demands, whilst on the other CSR expects them to act as ambassadors of social and environmental consciousness. Profit and moral conscience don’t appear to be great bedfellows. CSR may be emerging in boardroom agendas, but simple GDP economics means it takes a back seat to profit maximisation.
There is also another significant failing of CSR, not strategic, as this is more aligned to its legacy. For many NGOs, activists and non-believers it is seen as an ageing tool of greenwashing, the art of corporations using it to look good, and for customers to feel good. Surely this has, undoubtedly, also weakened its position as a strategic tool.
Around 2015, Peter Bakker, The President of The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, stated ‘CSR is Dead. It’s over!’, and since then I have seen many articles and commentary that seeks to resurrect it around its original form. Perhaps this desire to keep CSR alive is because we believe this acronym of hope keeps the unsustainability wolf from the door. Have a CSR policy and it might just keep the NGOs distant, government quiet and people happy. Perhaps then, there is some sort of consensus! As long as we can keep it alive and muddling along, we can all accept it could work. I do believe we should keep it alive; it has become renowned as a tool to try and forge sustainable outcomes, we just need to ensure the model is workable and effective.
Sustainability requires dynamic change management, CSR as resilience offers that. The new model of CSR is not to compare or contrast to the old, it is a contemporary model: to replace the old. No, responsibility and resilience don’t necessarily work on the same level; they don’t need to. And, yes, there is responsibility within resilience, but there is a world of difference between using subjective ideals as a strategic process and using it as a guide or moral compass.
Resilience builds strategy around change management by emphasising adaption and transformation; it builds adaptive co-management. Most importantly, corporates will adapt and transform if stakeholders are on board with them.
I firmly believe that many corporations want to build sustainable strategies, that the majority of CEO’s are not heathens looking to destroy our planet, nor are individuals and NGOs obstructive, we just need innovative business models that bring stakeholders together and employ strategies that are workable not idealistic. Not only this, but in this uncertain World of authoritative media, protectionist and global economies and demands of sustainable actions, it does make ‘commercial sense’ for corporations to attain a consensus to their actions. If CSR is viewed through this different lens of resilience, then the gap between corporate actions and environmental and social sustainability may start to diminish. The corporate may not always be seen as the antithesis to sustainability… it may actually be seen as an ally.
All stakeholders need to challenge convention, think beyond philanthropy and subjective ideals to manage a broader concept of change and transformation; which resilience allows for. This process, aligned to environmental management, was first articulated in the early 1970’s by Canadian ecologist C.S.’Buzz’ Holling. He connected resilience to how natural systems could adapt and transform from the impact of significant change from fire, flood and human intervention.
Corporate Resilience can learn from this, understanding the demands for significant change and adapting strategy to embrace transformation. Transforming from significant change seeks broader and stronger partnerships and collaboration and it advances adaptive co-management beyond corporate domains.
This new model of CSR is not a golden bullet, it will take time and commitment but at least we can refresh strategies by employing a model that is workable and has a chance to build consensus in sustainability. We need business models that fit with circular economies not ones that provide an arthritic helping hand to keep GDP alive. Let’s truly look to the future, let’s build adaption, implement change management and engage all stakeholders by employing a resilient model, let’s recycle CSR as resilience.