Was Corporate Social Responsibility responsible for the BP spill? Absolutely! CSR? Don’t quit your day job! (so says the Washington Post)
I was flabbergasted. I had to read the article three times just to be sure I wasn’t missing some essential qualifier. Here was the Washington Post equating Corporate Social Responsibility with charity and philanthropy.
“But the gulf oil spill and the financial crisis have taught us, rather brutally, that the heart of the relationship between business and society doesn’t lie with the charitable deeds that companies do in their off-hours but whether they are doing their day jobs in ways that help — or hurt — the rest of us.”
Chrystia Freeland, global editor at large for Thomson Reuters, wrote the article “What’s BP’s social responsibility?” (Sunday, July 18, 2010). Google reader brought it to my attention and halfway through the first paragraph I was hooked – particularly at the point where Chrystia suggests, “I would like to suggest a third, inanimate culprit: the cult of corporate social responsibility.”
The premise of Chrystia’s article is that the oil spill happened because BP took their eye off the ball of doing business well. And she’s right. BP has made a big deal of their CSR focus, all the while neglecting the basics of good business such as safety standards. Compared even to the likes of Exxon, BP looks quite careless and uncaring when it comes to the triple bottom line of people, profit and planet. In one fell swoop, they’ve compromised the BP brand in all three areas.
“Greed is good. Greed works” – Gordan Gekko, 1987
But Chrystia doesn’t seem familiar with the most basic understandings of CSR. She believes CSR “muddies the waters” by involving companies in ancillary tasks such as education and the environment. “The job of business is to make money — in BP’s case by producing energy, particularly fossil fuels.”
By the conclusion of the article, Chrystia is echoing the war cry of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street with the declaration that we are all better off with “perfectly proper corporate greed” that is mitigated by legislation. Period.
She believes the great danger of Corporate Social Responsibility is as follows: “CSR, and the communitarian philosophy behind it, asks us to believe that the interests of an individual company and those of the wider community are fully aligned. They aren’t — a truth too many regulators forgot in recent years.”
(She may have lost the subtle irony Oliver Stone was looking for in his movie. Maybe the upcoming sequel will be more accessible for Ms Freeland….)
Ironically, Corporate Social Responsibility is exactly what Chrystia is explaining that BP should have been doing in the first place. Issues such as worker safety, mitigating environmental disasters and engendering the good will of consumers and stakeholders is good business and good CSR. The actual problem that Chrystia should be talking about, is the fact that BP was not, in fact, practicing CSR at all. Rather, they were practicing false marketing. Saying you’re doing CSR is not actually CSR. This is where Chrystia seems to be confused. She equates CSR with philanthropy meant to distract us all from what’s happening behind the curtain.
Time to grow up!
CSR is a quality of any mature company. Instead of acting as a teenager by testing the boundaries of what we can get away with, we are moving into an era of adulthood, where companies are finally embracing their earned roles of privilege and responsibility.
Sadly, Chrystia wrote the article without a thorough understanding of what she was talking about. Ultimately, she seems to be advocating for the plaudits of arrested development. (Another great show – but the dysfunction of which may lead Chrystia to think it’s about freedom and the American way. Sigh…)
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