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Our Insights 16 Oct 2015

Is CSR Dead?

By John Elkington

John Elkington, SustainAbility co-founder and honorary chairman, launches an occasional series on the business agenda.

‘Turkeys vote down Christmas.’ That’s one way of reporting the result of a Barclays debate on 8 October, in which I was pitched head-to-head against Mark Kramer of the Shared Value Initiative. The key question: ‘Is CSR Dead?’

There was a crackle in the air as the debate began. #TeamMark was ably supported by Janet Voûte, Global Head of Public Affairs at Nestlé, while my #TeamJohn partner was Covestro CEO Patrick Thomas. Long story short, Patrick and I won with 75% of the vote. But short stories can mislead.

When Barclays first suggested the theme, both Mark and I protested. The question felt tired. But the intense social media buzz soon proved us wrong. People clearly wanted to discuss whether CSR was dead or alive. (And that was even before the wheels came off VW.)

Still, even landslide winners should ponder what their audience was really trying to say. A key factor in our success may link to turkeys and Christmas. Our audience must have contained many CSR professionals who did not want their chosen profession pronounced dead on arrival.

Happily, the audience discussion suggested something else at work. When Matthew Taylor, chairing the debate, asked who thought capitalism was broken, virtually every hand in the audience went up. Both Patrick and I had stressed the crucial importance of moving beyond incremental solutions to disruption, breakthrough and ultimate system change.

I suspect many participants voted not for CSR as such, but for a more ambitious agenda in which business leaders commit to the sort of breakthrough change that could well do to their markets what Uber is doing to the taxi industry.

Ironically, given the make-up of #TeamMark, I had just flown from Switzerland, where I had participated in the latest meeting of the Nestlé Creating Shared Value Council. For me, Shared Value helps frame key parts of our agenda. But Patrick spoke for us both when he said that it reminded him of the Six Sigma approach to quality, appealing to a particular type of business brain.

Some in the audience knew that I had earlier locked horns with Professor Michael Porter, co-author with Mark of a landmark Harvard Business Review article back in 2011, on the implications of Shared Value for CSR and Sustainability.

Michael, also a member of the Nestlé CSV Council, once argued that Shared Value replaced both CSR and Sustainability. I disagreed, arguing that while Shared Value can be a useful professionalization of the leading edge of CSR, it in no way replaces the Sustainability agenda.

Shared Value is ‘Win-Win,’ whereas Sustainability requires ‘Win-Win-Win’ outcomes. Language is crucial here, with mainstreaming often resulting in the dilution of key concepts—something CSR has suffered from. So, while it is great that Forbes now argues that Sustainability is getting more financial and corporate traction, we should be ready for a debate themed ‘Is Sustainability Dead?’

And next time we should aim for a 100% result—in the ‘No, very much alive’ camp.

John Elkington is co-founder & chairman of Volans and co-author with Jochen Zeitz of The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways To Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line. He tweets as @volansjohn. For more on the debate, see here .

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