What's in a name?

The guys at Cone ask a great question on their CR page – “What does it say about a concept when there’s no consensus on what to call it?”

It’s so true. When you think of all the terms that are used, the list just goes on and on – Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Social Responsibility, corporate citizenship, corporate governance, corporate accountability, sustainability, sustainable development, socially responsible investment… yada yada yada.

What I’ve been trying to get my head around (and rather failing so far) is whether any of this really matters.

The part of me that says that it does argues as follows… 

Look at thought leaders in the field – whether it’s brand and communication agencies like Cone or Futerra, think-tanks like Tomorrow’s Company, or companies like Interface – and it’s clear that the overarching terminology of choice these days is “CR” or, increasingly, “sustainability”.

We’ve all long since ditched “CSR” – partly because it’s inaccurate (explicit reference to “social responsibility” seeming to imply the exclusion of environmental considerations); but mostly because we feel the term has become tainted – synonymous with greenwash and the outdated practices of the “CR as PR” brigade.

If you really want to position yourself at the leading edge, the more theoretically-minded part of me says, it pays to take heed of these trends.

But the part of me that says it doesn’t matter has some good arguments too…

As clear as the distinction may be in our own minds between “CR/sustainability” (as strategic driver of innovation and value creation) and “CSR” (as tactical bolt-on to bolster reputation), is the terminology really that important?

In many ways it’s no different to the age-old arguments of “personnel vs. HR” or “internal comms vs. engagement”. Academics and practitioners – me included – can and will seek to elucidate the differences, but it doesn’t pay to get too precious about it, provided that your audience(s) get what you’re talking about.

Whether people notice a material difference between these concepts, or just view it as old wine in new bottles, ultimately boils down to how organisations put them into practice.

It’s what you do that counts, says the pragmatist within me, not what badge you give it.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “What's in a name?

  1. Casey

    Hi Dan-

    Thanks for mentioning Cone in your post and for highlighting this ongoing dilemma. You’ve done a terrific job of capturing both sides of the debate! I don’t think we’ll see a consensus anytime soon, so I agree that the most important thing about terminology is that you define what it means for your company/organization. Define what it means as you would a mission statement, and really put a stake in the ground so people know what you stand for. There will always be differing opinions about what SHOULD be used, but in the end, we will all use what speaks to us and our values.

    Casey Brennan
    Cone

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  2. Dan Gray

    Thanks, Casey, great comment.

    Like you say, the terminology people use will ultimately be a reflection of their attitude and approach to CR. And maybe that’s the point of synthesis between the more theoretical and pragmatic sides of the argument.

    I suspect that those who recognise that responsibility is ultimately a cultural thing – an integral part of the fabric of an organisation, rather than a separate agenda – will naturally lean towards ‘sustainability’.

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  3. Josh Bayly

    I agree that the nuances of the terminology used can reflect a companies attitude towards responsibility, but I think this betrays a deeper problem. The issue is less with how companies themselves choose to define it and more with how stakeholders and the wider public understand it. The continued use of different terms and hugely varying interpretations of what those terms mean makes it more difficult for the layman to recognise that any progress beyond sharper PR has indeed been made. The business lexicon seems to be dominated by fashions and fads, but surely the area of business that aims to create stronger links with society, and be more accountable to it, has a duty to make itself comprehensible to the average Joe.

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  4. Dan Gray

    Totally agree that it’s a huge problem, Josh. In an ideal world, we would all have a singular definition and understanding of what it means to be a responsible business in the 21st century – one that is based on much more than just reputation. The reality, though, is that’s not the world we are living in and, if it were, there probably wouldn’t be a need for this blog!

    As Casey says, I think we’re still a long way off reaching any kind of universal consensus – not only, I hasten to add, as a result of the huge variety of attitudes and approaches within business, but also because a mature understanding of CR and sustainability is also missing among huge swathes of the public and even a great many consultancies who claim to specialise in the field.

    That said, at least there appears to be a consensus among those whom I regard as genuine thought leaders – i.e. the organisations I mention in the post. In the end, all we can do is to continue to shed our insights and hope that more and more people sit up and take notice of the “undeniable examples” (as Ray Anderson calls them) of businesses that are discovering the huge potential for innovation and value creation through adopting sustainability as a fundamental design value.

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