June 2010 | Vol. 24 No. 6
It is seven years since we last featured corporate social responsibility as our cover story, and the changes that have taken place in the meantime are simply staggering. One of the most significant is that a bona fide industry has developed around CSR, with consultants, college courses, magazines, conferences and associations all jostling for attention. Just a few years ago it was relatively difficult to find advice or case studies on best practice, but now the volume of information available is almost overwhelming. And while back then CSR was only just beginning to establish itself as an issue that might be discussed at board level, for many companies it has become a key element of corporate strategy—and a crucial recruiting tool.
Sadly, there are many things that have not changed much over the past seven years. Far too often, CSR executives are frustrated by their lack of access to the key corporate decision makers. Too many companies still consider CSR to be a bolt-on accessory that can be switched on or off as necessary. Worse, a surprising number of organizations still consider social responsibility to be solely about image or brand building.
By underrating the importance of corporate citizenship, these companies are making a colossal strategic mistake. The world in which they operate has changed fundamentally in recent years. The standards of behavior that companies are expected to maintain are much higher, while the price of failing to meet those expectations is much higher, too. Through social media, for example, companies' customers—and critics—can communicate with each other as never before. Already, there are examples of global giants having to abruptly change their strategy—and hurriedly upgrade their social or environmental behavior—after finding themselves on the receiving end of a successful social-media-enabled campaign. There will be many more.
As we find out in our cover story, though, one of the other important changes in the CSR field is the understanding that treating corporate citizenship as something distinct from the company's core operations is no longer acceptable. The companies that flourish over the coming decades will be those that successfully embed the principles of corporate responsibility in the core of their business.
And the final, most important difference? The leaders in CSR are not doing it to be nice. They are doing it in order to survive. Perhaps that is really what is meant by the phrase "sustainable business."
Until next month.