Corporate Eye

Cynicism or Reality in Australia? | CSR Around The World

GoPro SurfingAustralia is something of an anomaly. Pitched in the south western corner of the Pacific Ocean it’s about as geographically distant from Europe as you can get, yet culturally it’s much closer than many Aussies would care to admit.

For sure there’s the classic image of an ocker Aussie slinging a couple of shrimps on the barbie in between surfing expeditions to Bondi Beach on Christmas Day.  But is there really that much difference between Australia and the UK?

After all, said chap will probably also be found in a bar, beer in hand, cheering on his favourite sporting team with passion and fervour, in between throwing casually light sexist comments to his mates.  Sounds like a typical Sun reader to me (for non-Brits, The Sun is the most popular paper in the UK).

This is by no means to typify all our antipodean cousins as ocker, nor to typify all Sun readers as casually sexist (ahem!).  However, when you consider that the Australian economy relies more on its close neighbours such as China, Japan and Thailand .. you can start to see where I’m coming from.

If there is one characteristic which does make Australia stand out from the New World, it’s confidence.  Those darned Aussies are just so darned competitive.  We’ve had the Ashes going on over the last few weeks and recently England actually managed to beat the Wallabies on the rugby field.  We’ll be given hell in return, you bet!

The Aussies are natural leaders in just about anything they care to lay their hands on, so has this competitive, confident, almost aggressive take on European culture translated into CSR?

Well, apparently not.

A Frustrated CSR Community

Back in February, Wayne Visser spoke at the Australian Centre for CSR in Melbourne.  He then blogged immediately afterwards about how he found CSR in the sunshine continent, and hit the nail right on the head:

I sense a huge frustration among people working in CSR in Australia. The biggest reasons cited are an unsupportive (some even say backward) government policy environment, and the negative lobby power of Australia’s two biggest industries – extractives (mainly mining) and agriculture.

Mining is probably The Most Difficult industry to be sustainable. It requires removing resources permanently from the ground and using highly toxic chemicals to purify them — not a treehugger’s picture of paradise and it’s easy to see why the mining industry is naturally resistant to eco- or green changes in legislation.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of good sustainable work going on in Australia .. there is and some Australian companies are global leaders in their own sectors (including Rio Tinto in mining, but more for labour relations than anything else).

But for the majority it seems to come from a misplaced sense of direction.

Cool Programmes and Shiny Green Stuff

I remember one Australian correspondent I had a few years ago who shall remain nameless — suffice to say his company isn’t small and he himself is involved in several academic and regulatory initiatives.  He was forever skype’ing me about this study he’d been involved in or that product he’d just brought out.

They were great studies and fabulous green products.  But the spin he always seemed to put on it was “hey, this is cool green stuff which will sell, right?!” Yeah, but that’s not really the point.

Another Aussie correspondent, who shall also remain nameless, recently highlighted a press release entitled “Community Investment Strong as Corporates Give Back in 2010” to me.  Their comment was:

“So a cool CSR program makes up for the rape and pillage of the planet that occurs under the radar of mainstream media? Silly me. The disparity between what a company does, and what it claims; how it operates vs what it ‘gives’ via these programs, is just too great a gap for me”

It was with all this in mind that I turned to Alex Harris and asked her to comment upon CSR in Australia.

Stop The Mitigation, Start The Change

Alex’s background is in PR and media and she’s edited several successful business magazines.  More recently she’s become concerned with crisis management, reputational risk and, finally, CSR.  She’s now a successful author and speaker on the subject and editor of Reputation Report.

“I applaud companies taking a strong stand on ethics and governance issues,” she says. “(However) despite tremendous headway in philanthropic contributions, social and environmental programs by corporations, there remains a gap in understanding the true meaning of corporate social responsibility, and even sustainability.”

That note of frustrated irritability I’ve noticed from Aussie CSR professionals starts to creep in.  “CSR is seen as an additional item or function,” she continues, “A budgetary expense item rather than investment in how things are done throughout the business, and remains more about the reporting than the doing.”

Then she “pops the cork”, so to speak: “It is not valued as a business process or an investment criteria. It is in Australia merely a sub-set of marketing … (and)  as a subset of marketing I would have to say CSR in Australia is coming along nicely.”

Greenwash, in other words.  CSR in Australia is all about is greenwash.  But if you think about Alex’s words a little harder, you may see that what she has to say has greater relevance than just Australia.

The real state of CSR?

Take for example the line about how things are done, about how CSR is “more about the report than the doing.”  She’s right, isn’t she?

I mean, there are a few notable companies out there who have really revolutionised what they do (Marks and Spencer, Timberland, etc) but for many isn’t the sustainability agenda more about how you do a CSR report than how you manage your business?

Ah, says one argument, but surely by doing your CSR report you’re improving your business process? Possibly, maybe even probably, but for most large corporates it is just about tweaking what already exists to get the desired figures out of the other end, not completing a wholesale restructuring of the company’s methods and ambitions.

Many even set up a completely new CSR function within their company .. an approach the vast majority of CSR professionals abhor.

This is because I know .. *I know* .. there are many CSR professionals in the UK and Europe who quietly agree with Alex.  This is because they’ve expressed similar feelings of frustration and disappointment to me in private but dare not speak up in public because it would be more than their careers are worth.

So maybe, once again, there isn’t really that much difference between the Aussie and the European viewpoint.  It’s just that the Aussies — in that confident, youthful, devil-may-care way of theirs — are prepared to stand up and call a train wreck a train wreck.

Picture Credit: GoPro Surfing by Gordon Tarpley under Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution License.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.