CSR is about focusing on the little things

It seems odd that when corporations show their commitment to society through CSR they get the most out of doing something about the little things. Companies that are successful looks at what they do well and tries to figures out how this impact communities that they are active in, in ways they could not imagine if they did not have the tools provided though CSR.

When reviewing the many definitions of CSR that is out there it gives little or no clue how actually to conduct social responsibility. It would seem that if one just followed conventional wisdom it would be hard if not impossible to satisfy even the simplest requirements given by all these different classifications.

“The Social Responsibility refers to the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” Bowen, 1953 in Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, which commonly regarded as the first milestone in modern CSR research and practice.

Another more modern definition have been issued by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) through their guidance on social responsibility “Responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society; takes into account the expectations of stakeholders; is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships.”

Both of these very fine definitions give little or no clue to what companies should actually do to both successful in terms of profit, development and continued competitive advantage, and at the same time being in tune with societies moral compass.

But some companies have actually done quite well trying to combine their CSR with their core business. Just to give a few examples.

Danish Novo Nordisk has committed themselves to the task of “Changing diabetes” and have successfully introduced new products like Victoza inline with their core mission statement

The Swedish fashion company, H&M have under the statement “Conscious” has with worked to create sustainable fashion through a comprehensive CSR system that reduce risks in their supply chain.

Vivendi, the French telecom company, have initiated a program that promotes the safe use of the Internet to youth.

All of these initiatives are small when it comes to the efforts that the company needs to put into them because it is embedded in the “what we do” part of their business, but even so that have a huge impact on their outreach to the communities they are active in.

So even though it would seem that these successful companies are focusing on the “little things” they do represent a significant societal impact exactly for that reason.

Has the CSR movement really won the battle or have they lost the war?

Bank of America Tower

Image via Wikipedia

In the article from the Economist from 2005 Clive Cook argued that the CSR movement have won the battle for ideas about the virtues company and not least the harts and minds of executives around the world.

As Cook put it in 2005 “CSR commands the attention of executives everywhere—if their public statements are to be believed—and especially that of the managers of multinational companies headquartered in Europe or the United States. Today corporate social responsibility, if it is nothing else, is the tribute that capitalism everywhere pays to virtue.”

And there is no doubt that CSR have made its way into almost every crack of the business process from Human Resources and employee benefits to product development and production. These seem to be no escape from CSR everywhere one goes there seem to be a big sign that boasts about how corporations in some obscure way bring good to the world. Reports are being issued, social media are bring utilized and campaigns are being run just to boast about how this company is creating shared value or is leading the fight against green house gasses.

It would seem that the CSR movement have not only got the a good grip in the tail of the business beast but that it is also able to make a good buck for itself along the way.

“The winners are the charities, non-government organisations and other elements of what is called civil society that pushed for CSR in the first place. These well-intentioned groups certainly did not invent the idea of good corporate citizenship, which goes back a long way. But they dressed the notion in its new CSR garb and moved it much higher up the corporate agenda.”

But now six years down the road and one maybe two economic crisis’s down the road it the effects have not been what Cook describes. Companies have not flogged around the charities, the NGOs or CSOs in order to create a new type of development system in the face of government cut downs. In fact there have been a tendency to streamline efforts into the main business process to search for the ever-elusive business case.

While the CSR movement had hoped that companies would come to them because they had to power to publicly humiliate them through exposure in the press and other media this has not happened. Instead business have initialised CSR as part of the conditions of doing business like it has done with marketing, lobbying, employee benefits, supply chain management, etc. One could say that in public-relations terms, their victory is total but the war on ideas was not really won by the CSR moment in the end. CSR did not change the face of corporations in any significant way. So when Cook argues that “…their opponents never turned up. Unopposed, the CSR movement has distilled a widespread suspicion of capitalism into a set of demands for action.” It is a truth with modifications it would be more accurate to say that corporations reorganised.

One can just take a quick look at some of the so-called “green” companies that have been hailed by the CSR

moment as frontrunners. Companies like BP that even adopted a green logo but ended up with a huge crisis on their hands in the Gulf of Mexico. Novo Nordisk that have been instrumental in the CSR reporting scene and the fight against diabetes that seem to go from one bribery scandal to the next on a almost continues basis or Bank of America who were in the centre of the financial crisis creating bank products that they themselves had a hard time understanding and in the end lead to the fall of several major financial institutions around the world.

And maybe it was because that they did not really believed in the idea of corporate social responsibility that they were lead astray. That “they were starting to suspect that they have been conned. Civil-society advocates of CSR increasingly accuse firms of merely paying lip-service to the idea of good corporate citizenship.” So corporate executives started to think how to make the best of it, how can I “conn” everybody back, so that was what the executives did. They might have called it something different but in reality they started to dress their unsustainable products in a think “green” coating just think of the three companies I just mentioned and the companies they have been running while at the same time doing some of the most unethical acts in corporate history.

We should not blame the companies for being what they have always been. All companies are in some way or another born out of the basic idea of greed that the owner somewhere along they way would make a buck or two from what the

company was doing. So companies continue to be build around the idea that the main interest should be to make some kind of profit from its activities. “When commercial interests and broader social welfare collide, profit comes first.” And we seemed to forget that when everything went fine and that there would be a price to pay when markets started to go downhill.

As Cook so rightful said but might not have fully realised the corporations have not changed their DNA they are still the same beast that they have always been. What we need to learn is that the state, society, the environment and business need to co-exist like everything else in the world but that we will never live in perfect harmony with each other but constantly need to keep each other accountable for our actions no matter what role we play. So when Cook says “Capitalism does not need the fundamental reform that many CSR advocates wish for. If CSR really were altering the bones behind the face of capitalism—sawing its jaws, removing its teeth and reducing its bite—that would be bad: not just for the owners of capital, who collect the company’s profits, but also for society at large.” I think that this is even more true now that it was when the word were spoken in 2005 when we really did not fear the big fundamental chang

 

es that we soon after experienced.

Private business on a leash

Business needs frames and structures that they can relate to not given control over and it is the role of the state and society to constantly provide and negotiate these in order for business to strive. Like a cage in a zoo business need to be reminded that not all animals can be give the same level of freedom no matter how cute or well dressed they appear to be. A tiger however cute is still a very deadly beast and it is the same with business no matter how well one dresses up a oil company it is still producing a product which eventually will dry out and pollute atmosphere. “Private enterprise requires a supporting infrastructure of laws and permissions, and more generally the consent of electorates, to pursue its business goals, whatever they may be.” The last thing they need to be given the key to the cage under the pretence of CSR and corporate sustainability reporting and then be left to govern themselves.

Governments and interstate institutions like the federal government in the US and European union should realise that they play an important art in creating these structures that by hindering the movement of business that actually help business being sustainable. For fare too long have governments give over power to private business for them to control and decide what was good and what was not. This has only resulted in agony and pain for the populations of the world creating huge scandals, systems without transparency and business who does not realise the consequences of their actions.

Scandinavian work on CSR is reduced to how well you present your sustainability report

Ones the Scandinavian countries were among the very best performers with field of creating initiatives for how business and society could work together for a greater good. But now it is more about how you present your activities than it is about what the company is actually doing that matters.

I would love if I could say I live in a region were we have some of the best socially conscious companies in the world, but if I did so I would properly be lying to myself. What I see is that it’s all about presentation and squeezing all the advertising and PR blood out of every bit of activity that even have the smallest scent of social impact.

A few examples can be found in the partnership between IBIS (A NGO) and Toms (A chocolate producer). They have found each other over the child-labour issue and have partnered up to create programs that will educate farmers and their children in Africa. This is all well and I it is very well that a company tries to do something about the very problems it self is causing. But the issue I have is that it has become a marketing machine, which tries to inflate a relative small project (about 15000 people is effected by the program) into a commutative platform, which almost seems to proclaim that they are eradicating child-labour in Ghana all together.

Another example can be found around the leading company in Denmark Novo Nordisk (A medico company producing insulin) that have been leading within transparency and stakeholder engagement. But now seems to be preoccupied with their own reporting and creating so-called ‘shared value’ rather than engaging in activities that really integrate social and environmental concerns in the business operations. There is no doubt that Novo Nordisk have fantastic reporting and does a lot to promote a sustainable agenda, but in my mind they have taken the ‘eye of the ball’ and forgot what really matters is what you do not what you say about it.

Actually was the former chair of Novo Nordisk quite critical of the current CSR climate when he said that “Danish companies are not global leader in corporate responsibility. If we look at the various indices, which rates companies according to their efforts on CSR issues – such as the Dow Jones Sustainability or Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) – so there is no index, where Denmark was leading. There are four, five Danish companies, which occasionally are high, but it does not justify to-call ourselves leaders. Denmark is an average performer, despite the fact that our self-understanding in this area is very high.”

While the indexes should not be seen as a measurement in it self I think he is quite right when he points to the Danish self-understanding as being ethical and socially conscious.

So when Ingrid Schullström CSR manger for H&M in Sweden claims that “I think we are traditionally very Scandinavian in being fairly modest that we’d rather do things first and talk about it later”.

She says that while H&M has been active in this area for as long as 12 years, she feels customers do not “know enough about what we actually are and have been doing”, and identifies the communication of its CSR activities as “an area where we should maybe improve” she is actually kicking in a open door. CSR activities in Scandinavia have become a Communicative exercise rather than an activity that companies and organisations engage in for reasons of ethics and morals.

When I from time to time meet business leaders and professionals, and talk about there company they often refer to themselves as the ‘good girl in the class’. Implying that there specific company is better than the average and that they have a clean record on social, governance and environmental issues. But when I ask how they know this it is often because they have not bothered to ask some very straight forward questions about their own performance and not least the impact of their operations. When I for example ask about corruption they often refer to the Scandinavian way of thinking as being free from the idea of corruption. The just by being from this part of the world make the company somehow free from dishonesty, fraud and bribery like some kind of force field. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary we seem unable to change this worldview. In relation with the food-for-oil program scandal in Iraq they’re where several Scandinavian companies involved including Novo Nordisk who was heavily fined we do not change our self-perception.

They will rather boost their communication with half-truths and semi-investigated activities than really actively engage in social responsible activities. And when we invite for seminars, talking about The Scandinavian CSR model, we pat each other on the shoulder about how good we are and how stupid everyone else is acting when they do see us as the center of the universe.

So lets challenge our-self and the image we have created and start dealing with the real issues that we have in front of us and not dwell in what we ones were really good at, creating real sustained social change.

A shark by any other name…The Corporation

The Corporation

Image via Wikipedia

I begin my lesson in organizational communication by asking. Now that you are going to be experts in organizational communication and guide business managers in how to effectively communicate you will have no problem in answering this simple question. What is a Corporation?

….

Silence

….

One hand appear. It is an economic entity (according to Wikipedia). Another says it is a more of a legal thing like a person (I think they got deeper into the googeling)

Being a teacher at a relative big business school I sometimes wonder if we really know the answer to this very obvious and straight forward question.

But when does a business then become a corporation well according to Joal Bakan, and others might agree, it is when it loses it soul. One can say that a business has lost it soul when decision are being taken not because they are right or wrong but when they are based on rational and logical explanations. This might sound weird but it does make sense when you see what corporate managers are doing out there in the “real” world.

The corporation is an externalizing machine, in the same way a shark is a killing machine … There isn’t any question of malevolence or of will; the enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed.” (Bakan, 2004:70). So basically the corporation is a feeling less “monster” we let loose and of which we have been convinced it is the best of possible solutions to our need for prospering and happy society. (les affairs capitalism and Milton Friedman and Freidrich Hayek ring a bell)

But as people have found out that just letting the monster go did have some side effect they put pressure on companies to change their behavior. Just think of BP, Wall-mart, Nike, Apple, A.P. Moller-Maersk. When looking up Sweatshops, Nike even have their own entry on the web being synonymous with the concept.

So corporations invented Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in order to counter some of these attacks on their ability to make a profit. Some would say that it is against the nature of the beast or even unethical to have the corporation imitating human feelings in this way. But the result has been that companies have implemented systems that enable them to immolate to a certain degree human feelings. Corporation basically show that they care by donating their hard earned money to different causes or venture into different “feel good” programs like the UN Global Compact (UN GC) or UN principles for Responsible Investments (UN PRI) tapping into the goodness discourse. One company (Novo Nordisk) even had to explicitly say that they were a business and not a NGO-of-sort as their communication was so effective that some people had come to confuse the two when they debated intellectual property rights.

If CSR is a way for companies to emulate human feelings on a grand scale how come that they continue to make the same mistakes. If one goes back to the quote above it is because even though the corporation is painted in a different “color” it remains the shark it was from the starting point and that, I think, is the lesson to be learned.

The beacon of CR reporting have issued their annual report

Novo Nordisk is yet again setting the standard for sustainability reporting. For year we have seen the number of pages grow and grow, and effort to make it all fairly accessible have been increasing difficult. This year however they are going new ways in order to integrate their reporting and at the same time reaching the key stakeholders effectively.

As always the company is thinking about their key stakeholder in the world of diabetes even though they have many other activities. Novo Nordisk is keeping their customers at the core of their CR activities. Many other companies have a tendency to forget why they were actually put in the world and fragment their communication and branding efforts creating a inconsistent picture of the company and how it relates to its core business concept.   

“We have continued our efforts to improve access to care throughout the world, donating a portion of income from our net insulin sales to the World Diabetes Foundation and supporting improvements in the ability of healthcare systems to diagnose and treat diabetes”

The company is also signaling that they will get into the “obesity market” by communicating that they are preparing products for phase 3 testing. Obesity is closely linked to type 2 diabetes.

One of the controversies that Novo Nordick has been faced with is the high price that has been pit on their market. In the face of global recession there has been more than one voice that has spoken out against the company and others. In the Q&A section of the report Lars Rebien Sørensen, Novo Nordisk’s chief executive officer explains the company’s position:

“We understand the budget constraints governments are facing. Medical costs can be an easy target in times of tough political choices. While there may be short-term savings, the cost to society can be greater over a longer time frame. The cost of treatment is usually a small fraction of overall spending on diabetes care, with most spending allocated to treat serious complications related to inadequate medical care. In the US and Europe, for instance, insulin accounts for 3% of the total costs associated with treating diabetes.”   

While this might be true there are still huge gaps in what premium companies take for the products and the ability of the consumers and customers’ ability to afford that extra cost. Novo Nordisk has been able to charge extra because they have a very well established brand and a significant market share. Novo Nordisk does have a program that ensures that is differentiation on price towards the least developed parts of the world, but this does not come to the benefit of Greece, Ireland or the US for that matter. Even through the recession there has not been any decrease in the ability to make a buck quite the opposite actually.

 

The report shows that Novo Nordisk continues to be consistent in the reporting maintaining a high level of commitment to their core values and at the same time show that they are able to develop their business. The core principles that the company is build on are:

  • We create value by having a patient-centred business approach.
  • We set ambitious goals and strive for excellence.
  • We are accountable for our financial, environmental and social performance.
  • We provide innovation to the benefit of our stakeholders.
  • We build and maintain good relations with our key stakeholders.
  • We treat everyone with respect.
  • We focus on personal performance and development.
  • We have a healthy and engaging working environment.
  • We optimise the way we work and strive for simplicity.
  • We never compromise on quality and business ethics.

And even though there are issues of concern and inconsistencies in what the organisation say and what they do is remaining a beacon in the world of CR reporting.

Novo Nordisk on year of continues growth

For all SRI interested investors it is good to see that some of the leaders within CSR have had a tremendous year. I just pulled the numbers for the company and the growth pattern is amazing with almost a full year of continues and sustainable growth.

Novo Nordisk is a leader within business driven CSR and is looked upon as a engine for other companies trying to integrate a sustainable approach in their business model.