2016: CSR is dead! What’s next?

MNE_4li-72dpi_17may13Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

A couple of months ago I met an expert in corporate responsibility who asked me: ‘So, are you the guy who killed CSR?’ Normally being labelled a killer can get you behind bars, but in this case it was meant as a compliment. However, I didn’t do it! So why was I a suspect? The reason is likely that I chair the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct, a group of 46 governments that deal with business ethics issues by promoting and implementing the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD MNE Guidelines).

The OECD MNE Guidelines are the world’s most comprehensive multilateral agreement on business ethics and the only international corporate responsibility instrument with a built-in grievance mechanism. Under the Guidelines – this year 40 years old – the term ‘’CSR’’ is not used, rather they discuss ‘’responsible business conduct “(RBC). Responsible business conduct means that businesses should make a positive contribution to economic, environmental and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development and that businesses have a responsibility to avoid and address the adverse impacts of their operations. While the concept of CSR is often associated with philanthropic corporate conduct external to business operations, RBC goes beyond this to emphasize integration of responsible practices within internal operations and throughout business relationships and supply chains.

Nowadays CSR is a global industry. Most companies employ CSR managers, vice presidents, and experts; armies of CSR consultants are on offer and hundreds of CSR awards are distributed every year. In addition, countries are increasingly implementing CSR laws, action plans and even CSR ‘taxes’. Given the widespread recognition of CSR, is it really necessary to bury it six feet under?

Let’s be clear: I didn’t kill CSR, nor did the OECD. Ultimately, CSR committed suicide! Several characteristics contributed to its demise.

First, CSR is often associated with philanthropy and volunteer work in the social sphere, rather than long-term sustainable development. This is especially true in some regions where CSR activities are limited to companies building schools, or sponsoring local activities. Company CSR reports are often largely descriptions of feel-good projects and activities that ‘give back’ to society.

Second, CSR is often understood to be an optional add-on external to core business operations. For example the scope of a CSR managers’ responsibility is limited to voluntary initiatives while responsibility for non-voluntary obligations falls to procurement officers, human resources or legal counsel. Therefore corruption issues are often not considered a CSR issue and are not dealt with by CSR managers. Corporate tax responsibility, an integral part of the OECD MNE Guidelines, likewise is most often not on the radar screen of a CSR manager.

This division is problematic. The ‘voluntary’ association of CSR severely limits the role of CSR managers within their companies if they only deal with issues that are viewed as peripheral. In contrast, RBC, as promoted by the OECD, provides a more integral perspective; it is a core business function, and as such must be integrated within corporate governance, procurement, finance, and so on.

Additionally, core elements of RBC as outlined in the UN Global Compact or the OECD MNE Guidelines are not voluntary in most jurisdictions. Bribery is a crime in all OECD states, non-financial disclosure will be mandatory in the EU for large companies, and many issues of competition and consumer interests also covered by the OECD Guidelines are legally binding in most countries.

Finally, the ‘voluntary’ association with CSR suggests there are no consequences to non-compliance. That is a misconception. Research demonstrates that there is a strong business case for companies to behave responsibly. Responsible business practices can result in positive outcomes such as improved reputation and productivity. On the other hand, irresponsible practices can lead to significant financial liabilities and hamper access to finance. Investors who take environmental and social issues into account in their investment decisions today represent a portfolio of at least $59 trillion in assets under management.

CSR is strongly associated with the ‘old school’ social audit system. The voluntary, peripheral connotations of CSR have been reflected in the sense that often there is little follow-up done to correct shortcomings identified in social audits unless they have a bearing on other, generally economic, aspects of business operations. The worst example of a failure of the audit system is the Rana Plaza collapse. Some of the brands sourcing from Rana Plaza had performed audits of the factory prior to its collapse and continued to source from it, despite the clear existence of serious workplace safety issues. Responsible business conduct goes beyond auditing and stresses the importance of a continuous process of due diligence, which in addition to identifying risks requires prevention and mitigation as well as addressing negative impacts where they do occur.

Another problem is that CSR has often been used primarily as a PR tool, contributing to the perception that it is merely a greenwashing exercise. In the words of Michael Townsend: “Corporate Social Responsibility is, at best, only a partial solution — one which can be misused to create an illusion of responsibility.” Volkswagen, prior to its emissions rigging scandal, used to claim the number one spot on the Dow Jones Sustainability index. Enron has received CSR awards, and scores of companies display CSR-logos on their website while ignoring major corporate responsibilities. Fortunately, as increasing scandals have exposed the hollowness of some CSR programmes, more and more companies have begun to move their CSR functions out of their PR or communications departments.

“CSR is dead. It’s over!” declared Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Bakker argues that leading companies are already going way beyond traditional CSR by integrating sustainability into all aspects of their business operations in recognition that business cannot succeed if society fails. He urges us to innovate — to align with facts, to redesign what we mean by good performance and to get inspired by new definitions of success. Indeed what Bakker is suggesting is exactly in line with the responsible business conduct agenda of the OECD: integrating sustainability as a core aspect of business operations.

In practice there is no contradiction between corporate sustainability and responsible business. Indeed company sustainability is essentially derived from responsible business conduct. Thus, while CSR as a term may be dead, the concepts of corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability are still very much alive and may well live forever!

Useful links

Can Companies Really Do Well By Doing Good? The Business Case for Corporate Responsibility Roel Nieuwenkamp

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

Guest author

5 comments to “2016: CSR is dead! What’s next?”

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  1. James Greyson (@blindspotting) - 22/01/2016 Reply

    May I endorse and extrapolate the two dimensions of business responsibility that Roel describes very well.

    The 1st dimension answers “how ambitious are we?” Is it about PR and branding to a achieve a temporary and decorative competitive advantage? Or is it an expression of a meaningful vision for the future, to not just reduce impacts but to make an overall net-positive contribution to the world?

    The 2nd dimension answers “how will we make this a reality?” Do we sign a commitment and write a policy – that gets ignored when inconvenient? Or do we make it systemic, for example by instituting responsibility in law or economics, to define a whole new level playing field?

    Interesting to consider that all CSR or BRC initiatives can be mapped on these 2 dimensions. If we’re looking beyond traditional CSR and asking “what’s next?” it may help to have such a roadmap, showing both where we’ve come from and the aspirational area that remains less explored. Here we will find, in future, business and governments designing powerful new systemic policy and inspiring regenerative capitalism that can solve the problems left in the wake of old capitalism.

  2. Patricia Almeida Ashley - 28/01/2016 Reply

    Dear Roel,

    For sure, your paper is one of the best ever I could read in a synthesis: “Let’s be clear: I didn’t kill CSR, nor did the OECD. Ultimately, CSR committed suicide! Several characteristics contributed to its demise.”

    I do support your opinion: CSR committed suicide!

    For supporting it, I share the Prince Claus Chair 2010 paper: “Corporate social responsibility: A role only for business leaders?” I wrote for the inaugural speech at http://www.academia.edu/5884594/Corporate_Social_Responsibility_A_Role_only_for_Business_Leaders.


    Patricia Almeida Ashley
    http://www.intsr.uff.br and http://www.ecopoliticas.uff.br
    Universdade Federal Fluminense
    Niteroi – RJ – Brazil

  3. William Rodriguez - 30/01/2016 Reply

    I disagree as csr is only dead if ‘we’ allow it do be, and then we are responsible. csr is diverse depending on country, culture, and sometime, need for survival. If we allow the concept to die, we are the killers – every company, states – they subscribe to the global Sullivan principals and international laws. If not and we are not enforcing the laws – we are responsible. Rule one in quality [a company or the world] – did they know – if not – you are at fault.

  4. Todd Reddic - 01/02/2016 Reply

    Great article, which, by the way, we seen coming for quite a while. The concept of CSR can never die, however, the naming convention, just as seen during conceptual transition from Freeman’s, 1984 CSR1 to CSR2, through its migration to CSRP, to the reporting tool all tie themselves to the origins of Adam’s Smiths theories. So, a must for this new concept is to really take into account the global domain in which business is conducted, there in lies the paradox.

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