At a board retreat a few years ago, I witnessed a wise facilitator asking, "What quality in other people is most important to you?" Each board member wrote down their answers independently, and then shared them, one by one. They were shocked to discover that almost every single answer was the same. Integrity. Authenticity. Don't just say you're a good person, but be a good person. And above all, don't let us find out you're a hypocrite.
For this group of wealthy, high-profile board members, nothing could be worse than discovering that someone was just pretending to be interested in a cause because they were more interested in what people thought of them. And in this particular small town, inauthenticity would get you dropped from the social invitation lists in an instant.
What does this have to do with CSR?
Some practitioners are concerned that the brand and reputation gains of CSR don't seem to stick around for long. And unfortunately, much of the research on the long term impact of good social performance is focused on edge cases. "Did Deepwater Horizon affect BP's consumer perception around social responsibility?" Um... duh. Yes.
The culprit, I suspect, is actually integrity. Human society has evolved to shun liars, and the punishment is generally severe. While the CSR team publishes gorgeous CSR reports, the corporate lobbyists are fighting for every inch of competitive gain. And frequently those positions are at odds with each other.
In a 2014 article for the journal Business & Society, Stephanos Anastasiadis of the University of London interviewed 33 auto industry lobbyists. Each of these lobbyists were active in advocating for carbon dioxide emissions, while their respective CSR reports were telling a very different story.
Sample CSR report: "As a responsible corporate citizen, [Company A] is dedicated to protecting human health, natural resources, and the global environment. This dedication reaches further than compliance with the law to encompass the integration of sound environmental practices into our business decisions.”
Lobbyist: "[A lobbyist's] job is to make things go away... The lobbyist might be trying to make the 130g or the 120g (carbon dioxide limit) go away... That’s because we want to give us the maximum flexibility... we’ve gotta make money... this is a war for us, right? And so we would always try and give ourselves the maximum space to operate in... the maximum flexibility. That’s [what] we have to do for our shareholders."
Consumers are aware of the disconnect between CSR and actual corporate activity, which is why we have terms like "greenwashing." And until that disconnect is repaired, CSR gains will continue to fade quickly.
The solution is to be honest and tell one story. It could be "we maximize profit for our shareholders, comply with laws, and actively work to eliminate burdensome regulations." Or it might be "We maximize profit for our shareholders within the bounds of protecting human health, natural resources, and the global environment." Whichever one you pick, own it.
P.S. That journal article is both fascinating and a little depressing. Read it.