Take a look at my contribution to the latest round on the CommScrum. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s views on BP and whether anyone can come up with better (or should that be ‘worse’?) examples of greenwash.
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considerations); but mostly because we feel the term has become tainted – synonymous with greenwash and the outdated practices of the “CR as PR” brigade.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?
Not because Tesco’s strategy is necessarily bad. Credit where it’s due, the stats for their new environmentally friendly stores, such as the one at Cheetham Hill in Manchester, are actually quite impressive.
My beef with Tesco has less to do with what it’s doing and more to do with what it’s saying about it – the attempted positioning of Tesco as an international leader in tackling climate change and their claims to be “setting an example” for others to follow.
The problem lies in the fact that these relative improvements cut across a core strategy that remains fixed on significant international expansion – one that, by the end of 2009, will have seen a 286% increase in Tesco’s overall floor space since the millennium.
As a consequence, whilst Tesco attempts to trumpet an 4.7% reduction in carbon emissions per unit of floor space, its negative impact on the environment continues to grow in absolute terms – by 8.6% in the last year alone.
The new stores are a worthy progression, but hardly justification for claims to be leading the way – particularly when paired against the likes of Interface, who are working towards the elimination of any negative impact by 2020. If Tesco were the example to follow, then all we’d be doing is slowing the rate of decline.
With my CR Continuum about to be included in a major global research project, commissioned by IABC, it’s a timely reminder of the model’s usefulness as a potential greenwash detector.
Take a quick glance at it, and it should be immediately clear that, whilst it may talk a Level 5 game, Tesco’s approach is firmly rooted at Level 3. It’s an (the?) archetypal example of an organisation whose rhetoric on CR and sustainability doesn’t match the reality, and it just ends up handing more ammo to the Tesco-bashers.
It appears that Plan A has done nothing to protect M&S from the effects of the credit crunch, and no doubt the naysayers will trumpet this as proof positive that CR is just inconsequential fluff; an unnecessary and costly diversion from the business of maximising returns for shareholders.
If all CR means is a series of initiatives designed to protect and enhance corporate reputation, then they’re probably right. But therein, as Shakespeare once wrote, lies the rub…
CR or CSR (call it what you will) as a vague, umbrella term is undeniably still associated with this “CR 1.0” view of the world – i.e. “CR as PR”, a bolt-on to an otherwise unchanged business model.
Break it down into its constituent parts, however, and you begin to see a very different picture…
As Andrew Wilson of Corporate Citizenship suggested, reframe the question as, “Can good corporate governance survive a recession?” (or “good employee engagement” or “trusted relationships with customers and suppliers” or “energy efficiency”) and the answer ought to be a resounding “yes”. Indeed, in a recession, these things make more sense than ever.
Perhaps the most critical observation came from renowned economics professor, Paul Ormerod. He suggested that even the worst recessions seldom last more than 3 to 4 years, few going beyond more than 1 or 2.
As such, there’s a strong case for holding on to core strategies, and it suggests that a recession might provide a useful litmus test to sort out the fair-weather friends from the genuinely committed.
Harking back to my previous post, reflecting on what companies can learn from the example of Interface Inc., companies that pull back from CR are liable to label their activities as opportunistic, rather than an integral part of a considered, long-term strategy (a perfect example of what I’ve described as Level 2 on the CR Continuum).
And maybe that’s the silver lining to this particular cloud. At the very least, it should discourage greenwash and push companies to take the sustainability agenda much more seriously, focusing more closely on matters truly material to the business.
What will be really interesting to see is consumer reaction to a recession. As much as it will undoubtedly curb discretionary spending, it might equally provide a much needed drive towards more sustainable behaviours.
If it does, then the next economic upturn could be on a very different footing, and those companies that stay true to the cause will be well placed to reap the rewards.