The field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has evolved over the last 20 years to become increasingly strategic, but also increasingly fragmented and complex. We need a new CSR framework that can connect the fragments and paint a more holistic picture of a company’s social, economic, and environment impact.
CSR today has evolved to cover three distinct discussions:
1) Giving Back
For most Americans, CSR means corporate philanthropy and volunteerism. For them, responsible means reinvesting in the community where you work and sharing your wealth with those less fortunate.
As someone pointed out to me, the issue here is the assumption behind ‘giving back.’ It implies you took something and are settling the score, at least partially. The cleanest example is carbon offsets. If a company knows it is taking from the environment due to its carbon production, it can donate funds to plant trees in the Amazon to give back the clean air and ‘offset’ its harm.
It is important, but few if any companies truly give back enough through philanthropy and service to even make up for a small fraction of what they take.
2) Do No Harm
The second discussion is around the concept of “doing no harm.” This is the focus of most CSR departments at Fortune 500 companies. How do we not create negative externalities in the course of our work?
This includes a wide range of issues from the human rights of employees (especially in manufacturing), to carbon production, to food products that contribute to obesity and disease, to media that impacts body image of kids.
The reality is that it is impossible to do no harm. Companies, like people, consume, and the simple act of consumption does harm to the planet.
Even nonprofits do harm. We fly on planes, use paper and buy products that likely involve less-than-responsible practices in their production. Consider the typical nonprofit gala event, which generates massive waste and energy use.
3) Do Good
While we mock Goldman when their leadership proclaims they are doing ‘G*d’s work’, we need to start to recognize the positive social, environmental, and economic impact of companies in the equation.
If you discount the negative externalities, one could credibly argue that the products and services of companies in this country likely do more good for society than the nonprofit sector.
How many nonprofits: provide a public meeting place in nearly every neighborhood (Starbucks), enable tens of thousands to purchase their first home and begin to build their economic security (Wells Fargo), bring fresh and healthy food into communities (Whole Foods), bring creativity into every home (Time Warner), or provide a first job to young and at risk youth (Gap). But, there is a dark side to each of these businesses. They do tremendous harm and take a lot from our society; at the same time they are adding value.
A CSR framework and associated discussion that doesn’t address all three of these areas can’t effectively measure a company’s footprint on the world and our society.
Aaron Hurst is the President & CEO at the Taproot Foundation.
Discover Taproot’s own work with CSR departments to build out effective employee engagement programs here.
Image by The Loopweaver via Flickr