HAS THE GREENING of CSR GONE TOO FAR?
Director, MHC International Ltd.
Abstract: Corporations and the public are bombarded with need to go green – reduce carbon emissions, cheap buy local and organic products, conserve water – not surprisingly the ‘social’ part of CSR is getting less focus than it deserves.
Has the Greening of CSR Gone Too Far?
Al Gore has done a great job in bringing the environmental debate to the top of the agenda – if only he had made as much effort on one key social issue when he had the chance, the world would have been in much better shape now. I mean the 2000 election where he threw in the towel too early after winning the popular vote and knowing that votes in Florida had been severely manipulated. If he had fought on, refusing to accept defeat until recounts had been made then the greatest disaster of the past seven year- the Iraq war which is now estimated to have cost $US1.5 trillion dollars – would not have happened. 9/11 would still have occurred but we would have been in a better moral position regarding terrorism than we are today with the disastrous Bush in the White House. This is what I mean when I warn that social issues should not be completely dominated by the environment debate.
A recent e-mail in my in-box is in a similar vein. In the CSR news group csr-chicks Ulrika wrote “Hi CSR group members, could anyone advise me regarding a high-quality seminar or conference on Social Responsible Investment, SRI? SRI seems to be very focused on “Green Investments” and environmental issues. I am looking for a conference about SRI, focused on human rights, ILO rights, corruption as well as environment.’
In a recent survey of global company socio-political issues by McKinsey, more than half of the respondents picked the environment (sustainability), including climate change, as one of three issues that will attract the most public and political attention during the next five years, compared with 31 percent in the previous survey a year ago.
It might also interest readers that I was to present this story as a lecture in Paris last week with the same title at a Triple Bottom Line Conference run by Robert Rubenstein. Social disruption in France due to President Sarkozy’s new social agenda prevented my travel to Paris but, at least, I was very carbon friendly in not substituting my strike bound train with a gas guzzling plane! I leave readers to judge whether the world is a better place or not!
My own view
Clearly, global warming is one of the key issues of the day. The evidence, surprisingly, is still being disputed on whether carbon emissions cause global warming. For instance, John Christy, Professor of Atmospheric Science, at the University of Alabama feels that the science cannot be totally trusted because prediction is a rough ‘science’ and he notes ‘answering the question about how much warming has occurred because of increases in greenhouse gases and what we may expect in the future still holds enormous uncertainty, in my view’.
Of course, pumping all the energy we generate straight into the fragile atmosphere does seem as though something ought to give. The global warming story is certainly plausible. My view is that the issue is far too important a threat not to dedicate the resources of 1% of GDP a year to greening our planet that the Stern Report suggested. But let’s be sensible about this and take action where the most impact can take place.
The concern about the environment is not a new issue. Warnings of global catastrophe came from the Meadows’ team in ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1971. They were also careful to point out that other catastrophes were also occurring and the late Donella Meadows with whom I had the privilege to work, was a keen advocate of reducing poverty in India at that time.
Environmental issues are, relatively easy to get fired up about. During the cold war, the only international institution set up in the 1970s to bridge the gap between the West and the East was the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. It was set up outside Vienna to work on applying the technique of systems analysis to cross border environmental problems – something deemed non-political at the time! Today, of course, IIASA works on modeling of global warming and 17 IIASA scientists served as authors and reviewers on the recently completed IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) Fourth Assessment Report.
As readers will know, I argued in a recent monthly feature, we should choose our global catastrophes carefully! I wrote ‘… in addressing the potential catastrophe of Global Warming, are they taking their attention away from the closely existing catastrophe of poverty and under-development?’
Can CSR be the motor?
I believe that CSR is the motor to link all these concepts together. My own definition of CSR has settled to be that of ‘treating the organisation’s key stakeholders in a responsible manner’. I won’t labour that here since I devoted a longish chapter in my book ‘CSR and International Development – Is Business the Solution’ (Earthscan, London, 2007).
Thus CSR contains the major stakeholders and the key areas of social, economic and environmental. Nowhere, to date, do we find an overall assessment of what the priorities should be. For companies it is often obvious who the key stakeholders are and where their CSR priorities should lie. Less obvious is when companies reach out to wider community concerns where they work and how to treat their workers who are often in remote inhospitable places.
Yes, large corporations, as I have often argued in our Monthly Features, have responsibilities over and above their daily diet. They also, in some cases (see a recent monthly feature on CSR and the Arms Trade) can negatively affect major issues. Therefore, my main thesis is that corporations should not go overboard on the environmental front without also considering key social issues and, of course, their own bottom line economic issues. Normally, we don’t want corporations not to make profits since they will wither and die which is of no interest to those who support CSR. What these social issues are, what the trade-offs are between focusing on the environment compared with key social issues, as well as how environmental degradation is linked with social deprivation and poverty,are very important concerns and something I shall tackle in a subsequent Monthly Feature!
I urge all those concerned with the future catastrophe of Climate Change, to include action both for Environmental issues and for Socio-economic Development, as they are closely linked and both, if not addressed, will have grievous implications for us all.
[These issues and more are discussed at our annual CSR Update Forums in London – see CSR Update for 2012]
Michael Hopkins was Professor of Corporate and Social Research at Middlesex University Business School, Founder CSR programmes at University of Geneva and Managing Director of the CSR advisory company and think-tank MHC International Ltd. His books include The Planetary Bargain: Corporate Social Responsibility Matters (Earthscan, 2003) and Corporate Social Responsibility and International Development: Is Business the Solution? (Earthscan, 2006)
Copyright © Michael Hopkins and with thanks to Ivor Hopkins and Jawahir Adam of MHCi for comments and editing the earlier draft
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Michael Hopkins is Professor of Corporate and Social Research at Middlesex University Business School, and Managing Director of the CSR advisory company and think-tank MHC International Ltd. His books include The Planetary Bargain: Corporate Social Responsibility Matters (Earthscan,2003) and Corporate Social Responsibility and International Development: Is Business the Solution? (Earthscan, 2006).
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