If A Tree Is Planted In A Forest And No One Is There To See It, Is it Still Corporate Social Responsibility?
Posted by Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss
Corporate social responsibility has a lot of syllables and takes many forms. And there are varying degrees of intent and plausibility. Google for years was famous for its in-house slogan ‘Don’t be evil’. In a few syllables, they caught a vibe and encapsulated why they were doing what they were doing. Or why they thought they were doing it. Or why they hoped people would believe they were doing it.
They were disruptors trying to create something new and do better and bigger some things that already existed. Existing companies were bureaucratic dinosaurs hellbent on short-term thinking, driven by abstract financial targets at the expense of people and the planet. They did evil. Does that sound plausible, because I totally made that up? And that’s what Google was going at the time – making it up as they went along. Nah, it was true. The Google founders did have that catchphrase and they probably meant it. They don’t have it anymore but what they do have is some substantial military contracts and a lot of senior resignations instead. I bet they recycle though.
Recycling is a good thought exercise in the ‘perception versus reality’ of social responsibility, be it corporate or personal. Most of us are pretty cool and may even feel good about ourselves putting the right plastics in the right bins. But does that stuff actually get recycled? There’s news of China rejecting imported garbage and recyclables. This country certainly does not have the infrastructure to do much recycling economically. You don’t know.
You can book a flight and select an option for trees to be planted to offset the carbon your share of your flight’s fuel consumption creates. It adds to the cost of your flight though. The airline is being socially responsible offering it but how many passengers take it up and willingly pay extra for the promise of a conscience-salve they will never see? Is it just a PR exercise? Can we blame those corporates like airlines and data conglomerates on their behaviour when we have our ‘see no evil’ attitude to recycling? Do we, or they, really care about social responsibility, or do we care about being seen to be doing something that looks like social responsibility?
I met someone recently from a big company talking about trialling a 4-day work week. From what I was told, it seems genuinely motivated at the highest level and for altruistic and socially responsible reasons. They’re still conducting a phase to run the numbers and make sure it’s fiscally responsible too, which is obviously fair enough. It isn’t the leadership team’s money, it’s the owners’ money. A lot of businesses are like a lot of people, they’ll be honest and responsible if there’s something in it for them. In 2011, the US state of Utah ran a brief experiment with state employees and a four-day work week. They stopped doing it as the success criteria they set in advance related to energy and fuel savings, not employee wellbeing. And, those energy and fuel savings did not materialise. Arguments, however valid, about costs being passed to future generations is like pushing stuff uphill with a pointed stick on the Friday which is now supposed to be an extra day off.
Solar panels got adopted early by hippies but once they’re viable, scaleable and economic, everyone will be doing them. Social responsibility has a price and, as every economist will tell you, if you can stay awake long enough, price affects supply and demand. Tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over what corporates should do will get us about as far as we have gotten so far. And that is where we are.
We could observe that corporates aren’t sentient entities; they’re abstract concepts populated and controlled by people. People can be socially responsible, surely. Some can, sometimes but mostly history shows us it’s tipping points brought on by momentum that spur corporate leaders to stop being evil. Be it no longer offering free plastic bags at checkout, offering better than minimum wage, or stopping paid advertising with hate-spreading media outlets, well-meaning corporate leaders will move if pushed but they will check with the accounting department first.
If you want more corporate social responsibility, keep tweeting, organising marches, targeting the kids of the middle and so forth. They’ll swing a zeitgeist or two around the courts of public opinion. But, the handbrake needing release is how consumers decide to spend their money. Corporates are mostly competitive and if their primary competitive difference is what makes us little people vote with our wallets, then they’ll change.
Spend your money to control the profit makers. They’ve been spending theirs to control us for centuries.
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