This is the final instalment in this brief series about renewing CSR.
The first part looked at the beautification of business. Currently all business is seen as being rather utilitarian. Their purpose, especially in a capitalist consumer-led economy, is simply to get money out of the hands of consumers and into the pockets of shareholders.
It’s not that I agree or disagree with that .. it’s just that all the alternatives to it are similarly utilitarian. So you have philanthropic or resource-based measurements all of which are about usefulness and efficiency, if in slightly different directions.
Why not, I asked, aim to have businesses which were beautiful as well, businesses which we valued for some kind of intrinsic reason as well as because they produced or consumed something at a certain rate?
The second part asked whether business should teach a man to fish. What a business does at present is to mark off a little corner of proprietary information, try and make it as inaccessible to anyone on the outside, and then sell access to that information.
Many high paid professions, from banking to IT to medicine, are characterised by this .. they’re not really particularly hard as such, they just contain an awful lot of lingo without which it’s easy to look stupid.
Why not, I asked, turn it around the other way? Why not find out how to do something and then make it your business to teach other people how to do it? I’m not talking about education here .. I’m talking about dropping having power over someone as a core business requirement and replacing it with empowerment instead.
Four more challenges for responsible business
These two ideas strike at the heart of what we have come to mean by “business” and (to be honest) make me feel rather unwell when I think about the ramifications of them.
Here are another four I put together for the now sadly missed Sustainability Forum:
- price your service or product according to how much it costs to produce, not how much the market will afford or how big a profit you can make;
- innovate don’t copy: there’s nothing wrong with improving, or even producing lower quality versions, but producing something different because it means you’ve produced something new is no way to conduct business. Yet it’s what a surprisingly large number of companies do.
- pay your employees according to the value they bring your company, NOT their seniority or even their responsibility. This is dangerously close to paying wages through profit-sharing, and if you’re challenging the greed of business as usual what could be wrong with that?
- stay committed: businesses usually disengage with their clients and customers after a certain length of time .. either the contract for services has been completed, the product’s warranty has expired, or something like. Usually one of the upsides of this “chuck it over the wall and run away” approach is that you get to be paid lots of money to go and fix it when something goes wrong. Why not stay engaged, provide top quality in the first place and commit to support your client or customer come what may?
There’s a lot being talked at present about the next phase of CSR. So much is going on it’s quite remarkable .. from cause marketing to sustainable stock exchanges; from integrated reporting through to banking reform.
All good stuff .. but all about changing the effect of business, not challenging what a business should be in the first place. Even creating shared value (CSV) is expressed as a means of exploiting the links between society and business, exploitation being the key word. It’s not so much that the leopard is changing his spots as that he’s decided to paint them green.
It’s difficult to remember that today’s modern stakeholder-driven model of business was invented in the coffee houses of Europe just over 300 years ago but that markets, business and commerce have all been around for much much longer. It was a revolution 300 years ago to sell stakes in a company to shareholders, and it’s a revolution we need now. Not to destroy business or bind it with government regulation, but to ensure that profit at any price doesn’t continue to warp what good business is all about.
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