Corporate Social Responsibility is dead

May 12, 2011 12:00 PM ET

Corporate Social Responsibility is dead

There is a new consciousness emerging that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is dead. 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.

More and more people realize that our urgent and growing sustainability crises are not isolated issues, but are interconnected. Climate change, water shortages, pollution, toxicity: they are the result of a way of thinking whose time has passed. While the “take-make-waste” industrial age has brought great progress, people are realizing that the side effects are inherently unsustainable.

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?”

In Bob Willard’s latest blog post, he suggests that it’s time to raise the bar for companies claiming to be sustainable. “When we celebrate companies ranked as being the most sustainable,” Bob asks, “are they really just the best of a bad lot? How would we recognize a sustainable enterprise if we saw one? Are we ready for a more rigorous assessment of where Mother Earth would position a company on its journey toward being a truly sustainable enterprise?” Bob thinks so, and we agree.

Truly sustainable enterprises will no longer undermine the Earth’s capacity to sustain us nor will they undermine our ability to meet human needs. They will work within the non-negotiable principles of the larger natural world. Gil Friend does a great job of articulating what this might look like in Natural Logic’s Declaration of Sustainable Business Leadership.

More and more people are starting to realize that sustainability is not about being less bad or more efficient. It’s about inventing a completely different kind of future.

To get there, we’ll need a radical shift in the way we think, make decisions, and work together. That requires a dramatic increase in sustainability literacy: the attitudes, knowledge, and skills we need to contribute to a more sustainable world.

Sustainability requires deep, transformative change. Sustainability thinking must be integrated into the core strategy and DNA of an organization or community, informing all levels of policy, governance, products, services, and relationships. It must be firmly embedded into the corporate culture.

That means going beyond greening the office toward more challenging, deeper engagement. It has to be about more than saving paper, recycling, getting rid of the Styrofoam cups, car-pooling, and turning off the lights—as important as those things are.

The good news is that employees are ready for deeper engagement. In a recent blog post, The Natural Step Canada’s Chad Park reminded us that people are striving for meaning and purpose in their work. Tapping into this in an authentic way is the most significant part of the business case for sustainability. To truly capture the potential benefit of more engaged employees, their sustainability effort has to touch the organization’s core business, including its products, services, operations, suppliers, and clients.

People have to feel that by doing their job—doing the business of the business—they are contributing to positive change and their efforts are stepping stones toward something greater. Only then do they begin to believe that their personal values are genuinely reflected in the values of the organization. The creativity and innovation that can be unleashed by engaging employees in the change process cannot be underestimated.

We’re living in exciting times. There is more and more evidence that sustainability thinking is here to stay, but if we are to succeed in reversing current unsustainable trends, we need to move from CSR to a new closed loop, regenerative economic model; from addressing sustainability at the periphery to embedding it into the core of our businesses and communities. We need to dramatically increase sustainability literacy. And we need the kind of inspiring bold vision and commitment as outlined in Natural Logic’s Declaration of Sustainable Business Leadership. Because, as Natural Logic reminds us, incrementalism didn’t get us to the moon.

The Natural Step Canada is working with leading businesses, communities, and other organizations to address these key issues, ask the right questions, and make genuine progress toward sustainability. To find out how we can help, please contact us today.

About The Natural Step Canada
The Natural Step Canada is a dynamic non-profit organization with over a decade of experience helping organizations and individuals understand and make meaningful progress toward sustainability. We envision a sustainable world in which individuals, communities, and businesses thrive within nature’s limits. We strive to inspire, educate, and connect Canadian leaders to accelerate the transformation toward a sustainable world.
Through award-winning learning programs and our unique suite of advisory, coaching, training, and process facilitation services, we translate the fundamentals of sustainability into practical steps businesses and communities can take to achieve lasting change.