If CSR As We Know It Is Obsolete, Who’s In Charge?

“CSR in my mind is defunct now… Compartmentalizing the socially responsible is not the way to go. I think the model for starting employee engagement activities has to be embedded in everything you do.”

Richard Branson isn’t the first to make this statement.  It’s hardly heretical anymore. Campbell’s Vice President for CSR Dave Stangis seems to agree,

“The mark of success for this generation will be cannibalization of the sector as CSR becomes integrated into a company’s functions just like human resources, finance or quality.”

But is it true? For companies of all sizes, markets and combinations of stakeholders?

Branson and Stangis advocate this approach as leaders within large, publicly traded companies, pointing to fully embedded integrated sustainability as a viable approach for companies beyond the ilk of TOMS Shoes or Ben and Jerry’s.

Until recently, Unmesh Brahme shared their point of view. Unmesh developed Ogilvy & Mather’s and HSBC’s CSR programs in India and worked with Oxfam and the World Bank before that, which means diverse experiences shape his perspective.  Brahme explained that up until several weeks ago he thought,

“The real identifier of a sustainable company would be the elimination of its CSR department.”

But lately he views a chief sustainability officer (or comparable position) as necessary to advocate sustainability in cases of conflict with direct profit or stakeholders.

Can a company’s many parts–employees, management, green teams and external stakeholders– push forward sustainability together, or does sustainability need an internal champion whose unequivocal role is to stand up and fight in times of conflict?

The ultimate aim of sustainability in business is to use it as a strategy to optimize value for all stakeholders (including employees, community or society and environment).  Today, there are conflicts of interest that sometimes arise between stakeholder interests, but will there always be? Maybe the statement to make is that sustainability and profit won’t diverge, but instead both grow from the same action. Is that even heretical enough?

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  1. Chris MacDonald August 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    You start by talking about CSR, but end up talking about sustainability. Do you take those two to be synonymous?

  2. Olivia Khalili August 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Chris, astute comment. It made me reread and rethink my thoughts. I don’t think they’re synonymous but I do think the goal of CSR is ‘sustainability’ (which I define proactive responsibility to society and the environment).

    My underlying question is how much sustainability can you have without CSR? That might have been a more appropriate and clearer title. I like the different frameworks that Branson, Stangis and Brahme talk about, but more interesting to me is how companies effectively cultivate and grow sustainability.

    Really appreciate the comment.

  3. Megan Strand August 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Great post (as always), Olivia. I think the answer is “yes” and “yes”. Yes, sustainability and the efforts of a company’s CSR program need to be fully integrated across the entire organization starting at the highest levels and yes, you probably will always still need an internal champion to be the subject matter expert, whether or not their title bears the “CSR” acronym.

    It obviously depends on the leadership and maturity of any given organization. How invested are they in their sustainability efforts (I’m with you…CSR leads to sustainable business practices) at the highest levels? At what stage of implementation are their sustainability practices?

    Ultimately, the place at which we need all companies to arrive is that convergence of sustainability and profit. It also takes a lot more than one internal champion. It also makes me wonder if the title and term “CSR” will disappear completely someday.

  4. Shane Farkas August 21, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    It is interesting to contemplate changes like this in such large companies that were well-established before CSR/sustainability were a concern or even in the vocabulary of many people. Its tough to fight the perception that sustainability necessarily decreases profitability, especially when the company has to answer to thousands of shareholders. And while it is much easier for smaller, newer organizations to implement policies or business models that incorporate sustainability, huge companies can have a bigger net impact if they are successful at finding a balance.

  5. Olivia Khalili August 23, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Shane: Thanks for your thoughts. I agree. It’s easier in general for smaller companies to develop sustainability practices and easier still when they are able to incorporate them from the beginning. It will be interesting to see how larger companies embrace sustainability and exploit it, in the positive sense, so there’s increasingly less need to strike a balance as sustainability will win out for ethical and financial reasons.

    Megan: Great points. Agreed. I think the term CSR will become obsolete. I find it really interesting to step back and speculate on the evolving landscape of CSR/sustainability/purpose-driven businesses.