Businesses should not be doing ‘CSR’ – here’s why

Volunteers linking arms

Do you pay your staff well? Treat people fairly? Make honest claims about your products? Work safely? Respect the environment? Support your community?

Why?

Is doing the right thing important to you? If, so – great. This is not ‘Corporate Social Responsibility.’ (CSR), it’s reasonable and responsible behaviour. We should behave reasonably and responsibly all the time in all aspects.

It’s the treating of ‘responsibility’ as if it’s separate from (other) corporate priorities that I’ve never been comfortable with. Like businesses would not behave responsibly otherwise. To have a separate thing called ‘CSR’ seems to suggest that is the case.

It may well be the case that businesses would not behave responsibly without intervention from outside. This is demonstrably true, as it’s the reason legislation and regulations need to exist. The tendency for businesses not to behave responsibly then is the real problem. And, it is worth addressing. Anything else is superficial.

We need to evolve beyond Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

I’ll happily acknowledge that your business has done something good if you give to charity or take part in a community event. But this does not mean that you are doing all you can.

How are you treating your people daily? How do you treat your suppliers? Are your recruitment practices free from bias? What are your environmental credentials like if you factor in everything that you do? Do you steal intellectual property (IP)? Do you tell lies about your competitors? Are you honest about your level of expertise? These are the things that determine whether or not your business is reasonable and responsible (and ethical).

What we should be doing instead of CSR, is simply responsibility. In every interaction with people and companies. All the time. This is what a responsible business looks like.

There is a lot written about having a ‘social conscience’. I would suggest this needs to be more about ‘business owner conscience.’ Then, not having business systems and people that prevent this from being realised.

If you have a ‘business’ persona and a separate conscience then you are doing it wrong.

Tokens vs real action

You will never see my company’s logo in rainbow colours. Does that mean I don’t respect people or don’t want them to be their true selves at all times? No. And, it would be foolish to suggest so.

Actually, you will never see my company logo in anything other than its original colours. The days of having different versions for different formats are long gone. But, that’s another story.

Society is full of prejudice of all kinds. That means it’s in everyone’s business. Let’s commit to changing that in every way we can.

Hey, if you want to wear a badge, that’s absolutely fine. Just understand that it’s not where your responsibility ends.

Why is this important?

If you think this isn’t a big deal, then, let me tell you, I have met:

  • A racist diversity trainer.
  • People from organisations ‘committed to improving social inclusion’ who did not care about people with disabilities.
  • Leaders from organisations with all kinds of people accreditations who bullied their staff.
  • People claiming to do good things, but, if you scratch beneath the surface, the outcomes are not there. It just helps them to sell stuff.
  • So many business leaders who share their toxic ‘opinions’ and there is no way this is not impacting the decisions they make.
  • Every type of dishonest behaviour imaginable.

In my early career, I had to leave one job because I didn’t share the team’s tabloid opinions. And that was not acceptable to them. I had to leave another because of the way they were treating their customers.

So, yeah, ‘Deeds not words.’

Can a business be ethical?

Yes, of course it can.

But, ‘ethical,’ by definition, can mean whatever someone wants. Ethics is the making of decisions according to ethical principles. Those principles could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on what you believe. Ethics can’t be absolute.

So, to say you are ‘ethical’ is a big claim to make. Whenever I’ve met people who make such a claim, they haven’t lived up to ideals that I would recognise. Sad, but true.

On many occasions, I have been offered tokenistic ‘CSR’ solutions that would not change the fundamentals of what my business is. I might even do some of them. But, it’s the rest of what my business does that determines its ethical standing.

The reputational challenge

OK, so if the moral and legal cases for responsible business don’t move you … there is the likelihood that responsible business improves your business results. It attracts loyal customers and it attracts committed staff.

‘CSR’ could well be bad for your reputation. ‘Greenwashing.’ ‘Virtue signalling.’ And, a string of other terms that I’d rather not repeat. These are accusations that you risk every time you shout about ‘CSR’.

The risk can be mitigated by running a business that doesn’t cause any harm. There will always be some people who shout ‘tokenism’ whenever anyone does anything good. But, it’s better to make sure that these accusations are hollow.

Summary

The reason I dislike the term ‘CSR’ so much is its fundamental nature. It is manipulative. It is driven by a superficial approach to PR. Keep everything as it is but do some additional action on the periphery to be seen as ‘good’.

Being reasonable and responsible should not be the concern of one department (or person). Like anything important, it should be tied into the vision of the leadership and it should be shared by everyone.

So, there are three reasons that I’d like to bin the term ‘CSR’

  • It suggests that ‘responsibility’ is separate from other (or real) business priorities.
  • It is inherently superficial.
  • It is inherently manipulative.

Marketing does not have to be manipulative. And, done well, it won’t be.

Start by doing something valuable (like making great products and ensuring responsibility is at the core of your business). Then, tell everyone about it.

So, run a business that does good things. ‘Deeds not words’ turns out to be relevant in everything we do.

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