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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reimagining Sustainability and Success

Marc Gunther's blog review on Carol Sandford's most recent book (2011) incited a great debate among CSR practitioners.

Although I did not read the book in full, I do want to respond to a few things that Carol and Marc have discussed in the blog. What interests me about their particular viewpoint is that it takes both a holistic (and somewhat more radical) approach in looking at how business should be functioning in society today: like ecological and biological systems which both adapt to the changing world around them. Carol believes the most successful companies can function in this way and she gives half a dozen examples. Companies that rethink their purpose, reorganize themselves internally to draw upon creativity and passion among employees and management. The holistic approach is for them to integrate responsible behavior into the "way they do everything they do." The question is, can we think of business' role in capitalism to function in such a way? Perhaps cultivating and then adapting to change, like biological and ecological systems do, can be in the form of corporate responsibility.

Gunther explains Carol's belief of ridding CSR as a role and blurring the boundaries between various departments in order to invite everyone to find natural ways of being creative and innovative, connecting their work to a larger purpose.

Carol says embedding sustainability doesn't provide us with an end result. "To what end?" she says. Setting targets and metrics within the CSR departments only silos people to focusing on those targets rather than allowing them to feel free to express their values and beliefs at work. Ultimately, both Gunther and Carol believe that dissolving departmental boundaries, CSR departments included, will broaden the functions of the company to help focus on the whole of the business and its impact on society.

I do support the holistic aspect of business operations but I think that dissolving CSR's role as well as the department, is not going to help a company organically grow to be more responsible. Although CSR departments are nascent, CSR Managers are to provide their expertise in forging a path that can be integrated throughout the whole business. To train employees, to created internal buy-in among management and to show metrics on the success of sustainability within the company. I do agree that employees need to feel like they can foster their creativity and communicate their personal values and morals while working, but who will instill this type of initial response? If we take away CSR departments, we prevent an conduit to disseminating knowledge and we prevent expertise of people who will propel the movement to mainstream, ultimately providing for a seamless integration into all facets of the company.

The challenge is to both involve metrics as well as preventing "system's managers" or those who think CSR is just part of business. The goal should be to help employees and managers contribute to responsible actions because they feel the impact on the greater whole-society at large, among every living entity that is affected by the company. Fuelling this practice will allow companies to think holistically and to be moved by morals and beliefs and education, setting examples naturally, for other brands to follow. There are in fact many brands that exist to only improve society and their brand explains their story (The Body Shop, Seventh Generation, Sambazon). Other companies have the challenge to find direct and transparent links to their responsible actions, so they do not come across as adopting standards as a PR cover up.

The holistic approach involves government, watchdog groups, NGOs and consumers, who are becoming the leaders in this movement. By developing strong relationships with stakeholders, Carol believes that it will "build caring into our business relationships" rather than adding it on as an appendage. This she hopes will ultimately lead to blurring the lines of distinct departments where all may apply social responsibility to their part of the company.

I will agree on the end, but not on the means of getting there. I do still hold the CSR manager/department as the renegade, the leader, the challenger of status quo, even though it operates internally, there is much to be said about experts who understand the meaning behind CSR (that it's not philanthropy but so so much more), the brand they work within (its ethos, vision and values) and the people who possess the morals and the wherewithal to take action towards improving society. I guess I am just moved by how CSR is polemical but I do think we all ultimately want the same thing. A better world to live in.

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