Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric

About a decade ago it became all the rage for corporations to develop Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies. Originally CSR was clear. It encouraged corporations to consider their impacts on the societies that quite literally sustain them. Society consumes their goods and services, provides them with staff and, especially in the case of bankers, pays for their mistakes. Initially CSR had very worthwhile aims, but now is more commonly used simply to out-worthy competitors.

So how was CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility replaced with CSR – Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric?

Well, like many aspects of business the innovators and early adopters have a clear mission and understanding of what they are doing and why. However, by the time that any new practice becomes the subject of business improvement handbooks, it simply becomes a fad that everyone has to follow in order to maintain market share. At this point the followers are simply looking for the easiest route to show compliance.

Thus CSR has gone the way of Quality Assurance (QA). In the early days both CSR and QA were business improvement activities. A CSR policy allowed business to connect with the community that supported it. A well written QA system supported and enabled the business operations. Now both of these ideals have been reduced to tick-box auditing with the simple purpose of allowing businesses to demonstrate that they are no worse than their competitors.

So, we have now reached the point of “Sustainability Accounting”. Rather than recognising that all human activity has impacts, and taking responsibility for these, sustainability accounting uses a limited set of performance indicators to demonstrate worthiness whilst often obscuring the real issues. This approach clearly has great appeal to judge by the burgeoning of sustainability or carbon consultancy.

Now I guess political leaders must also be reading these same business improvement handbooks. Because, as we know, the private sector has all the answers doesn’t it? Maybe this explains why we are seeing rhetoric replace action on sustainable development in all spheres of life, including politics and national leadership. Competing organisations in any sphere from supermarkets to governments now vie to be seen to be more sustainable than each other without actually doing anything concrete.

We need to stop obfuscating and start taking responsibility for our actions once more. To begin with, we have to acknowledge that all human activity has impacts and that these impacts may go far beyond the present sustainability indicators. We need to take responsibility for all these impacts and work to minimise or mitigate them.

We need to start taking responsibility for our resource and energy consumption, for social development, for the health of our economy and for protecting our vital biosphere. We cannot continue to cherry pick just those issues which allow us to demonstrate our worthiness in limited spheres. These responsibilities also extend across the generations. We cannot simply ignore our responsibilities because we will not be around to be held accountable by future generations.

Its time to throw out the sustainability rhetoric and put responsibility back in business!

An extended version of this article was published here: The Conversation
And Here: The Guardian Environment
And Here: 2 Degrees Network

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