Can We Break the Spell of CSR Curses?

Can We Break the Spell of CSR Curses?

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 5 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

Looking back, we can see that the 1990s were the decade of CSR codes and standards – from EMAS and ISO 14001 to SA 8000 and the Global Reporting Initiative. But these were just a warm up act compared to the last 10 years, when we have seen codes proliferate in virtually every area of sustainability and responsibility and all major industry sectors. So much so that in the A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility, we included over 100 such codes, guidelines and standards – and that was just a selection of what it out there.

This spawning of CSR codes and standards is typical of Strategic CSR, emerging from the Age of Management. At its heart, this is the drive to relate CSR activities to the company’s core business (like Coca-Cola’s focus on water management) by turning these into formal management systems, with cycles of CSR policy development, goal and target setting, programme implementation, auditing and reporting.  All good and well, but where does this leave us?

My belief is that Strategic CSR – like its predecessors Defensive, Charitable and Promotional CSR – has brought us to a point of crisis. Specifically, all these approaches are failing to turn around our most serious global problems – the very issues CSR purports to be concerned with – and may even be distracting us from the real issue, which is business’s role causal role in the social and environmental crises we face. This failure is due to what I have called the three Curses of CSR 1.0, namely that it is incremental, peripheral and uneconomic. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

Curse 1: Incremental CSR

One of the great revolutions of the 1970s was total quality management, conceived by American statistician W. Edwards Deming and perfected by the Japanese before being exported around the world as ISO 9001. At the very core of Deming’s TQM model and the ISO standard is continual improvement, a principle that has now become ubiquitous in all management system approaches to performance. It is no surprise, therefore, that the most popular environmental management standard, ISO 14001, is built on the same principle.

There is nothing wrong with continuous improvement per se. On the contrary, it has brought safety and reliability to the very products and services that we associate with modern quality of life. But when we use it as the primary approach to tackling our social, environmental and ethical challenges, it fails on two critical counts: speed and scale. The incremental approach to CSR, while replete with evidence of micro-scale, gradual improvements, has completely and utterly failed to make any impact on the massive sustainability crises that we face, many of which are getting worse at a pace that far outstrips any futile CSR-led attempts at amelioration.

Curse 2: Peripheral CSR

Ask any CSR manager what their greatest frustration is and they will tell you: lack of top management commitment. Translated, this means that CSR is, at best, a peripheral function in most companies. There may be a CSR manager, a CSR department even, a CSR report and a public …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2011) Can We Break the Spell of CSR Pretenders? Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 3 November 2011.

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