Exploring a Flawed Paradigm: Why Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is Not Enough

Jan 3, 2012 3:15 PM ET

The following editorial by Chad Park, Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, appeared in the Corporate Citizens Mediaplanet Special Report in the National Post on December 28, 2011.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is outdated and counterproductive to successful enterprise and the global sustainability imperative.

CSR encourages us to incorporate environmental and social considerations into a business-as-usual scenario. This is the triple-bottom-line approach and is often depicted with three overlapping circles representing economy, society, and environment.

This is a flawed paradigm.

In fact, economy, society, and environment are not three equal parts, but function like nested eggs. The economy occurs within human society, which in turn exists within the natural environment. The natural capital provided by the Earth sustains everything that exists within it. Accordingly, almost every global mega-trend tells us that without a radical transformation of the way we conduct business, a wide variety of risks and pressures will continue to harm profitability across the board.

Speaking metaphorically, the car we are driving is heading toward a cliff. By adopting CSR in its current form, we are softly applying the brakes and only buying ourselves a little more time. In this scenario, going over the cliff is inevitable and simply a matter of time.

Instead, we should be focused on turning the car around.

Most companies continue to ask themselves: “Based on our business plan, what should our CSR strategy be?” But to succeed in the future, businesses must instead ask: “In light of the global sustainability imperative, what should our business plan be?” Massive opportunities await the organizations that come to grips with the root causes of unsustainability and design them out of their businesses.

Companies like Nike, Interface, and The Co-operators are leading the way with sustainability as a mobilizing corporate strategy, increasing their profits, while generating substantial goodwill, and laying the foundation to be relevant in a sustainable future. The leaders in corporate sustainability will thrive as the operating environment inevitably becomes more difficult, leaving the laggards to perish in their wake.

We need to collectively acknowledge that we aren’t doing nearly enough to succeed in the rapidly changing economy of the 21st century, nor enough to create a society that thrives without drawing down our life-giving natural capital.

Incremental improvements are not enough. We are in need of transformational change. Now is the time for Canadian businesses to exit the highway of unsustainability and chart a new course.

Chad Park is the Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, a non-profit sustainability organization that delivers leading consulting and education services. He was recently honoured as one of Canada's Clean16—the 16 individuals in Canada who have done the most to advance the cause of sustainability and clean capitalism. For more on The Natural Step Canada, please visit www.thenaturalstep.org/canada.

Reproduced with permission.