Year-in-review articles typically survey the most significant events of the previous 12 months, and CSRwire’s 2009 overview of corporate social responsibility (CSR) will not disappoint. But perhaps the biggest CSR development of the year was not readily visible, as it was an idea: that CSR represents not just a trend or professional discipline, but a social movement. In other words, CSR is not a random collection of ad hoc, discrete actions to revise corporate behavior, but rather a coherent aggregation of sustained, widespread efforts to reform (or even revolutionize) the role of corporations, shifting from negative to positive impacts on society, environment, and economy.
The idea – which is by no means new (a quick Google brings up a 2006 blog post by John Elkington and a 2008 academic paper by Cindy Williams, among many others) – came to the forefront with the 2009 publication of The Corporate Responsibility Movement by Jem Bendell. Bendell started talking about this notion in a UN report a half-decade earlier, to describe the dynamic whereby activists and corporate executives alike advocate for positive corporate influence. In fact, Bendell self-identifies as both an activist and a corporate consultant, internally breaking down the barrier between these seemingly incompatible roles. Similarly, the CSR movement breaks down the divide between activist and executive, joining them in one body (Bendell traces the term corporate to its Latin root, corporatus, or “united in one body”) working toward a similar goal – albeit with sometimes opposing tactics and strategies.
The notion that movements play a key role in advancing sustainability got a major boost when the Worldwatch Institute devoted the final section of its flagship annual State of the World book (this year focused on Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability) to “The Power of Social Movements,” with chapters by John de Graaf on the Take Back Your Time movement and Wanda Urbanska on the Simple Living movement (coincidentally, both are bloggers on the new CSRwire TalkBack blog.) State of the World editor Erik Assadourian:
Throughout history, social movements have played a powerful part in stimulating rapid periods of cultural evolution, where new sets of ideas, values, policies, or norms are rapidly adopted by large groups of people and subsequently embedded firmly into the culture . . . Already, interconnected environmental and social movements have emerged across the world that under the right circumstances could catalyze into just the force needed to accelerate this cultural shift.
CSR is arguably one such movement. And it interacts synergistically with other movements.
For example, the global movement to address climate change demonstrated its strength and reach at the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference (or COP15) in December 2009, when activism intertwined with official negotiation to raise the bar (perhaps insufficiently) on climate action. The business community has largely shifted from its traditional opposition to climate action, and now span a continuum from the US Chamber of Commerce’s support for climate legislation with significant stipulations to the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) and Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), which support more ambitious climate regulation in order to create certainty and a level playing field for companies. Companies that question climate science (such as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey) or oppose climate legislation open themselves up to significant criticism.
The first day of COP15 coincided with an announcement that represents a sea change in regulatory attitude toward climate: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finally confirmed the Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions, ending the long era of corporations freely externalizing this greenhouse gas onto society – perhaps the most significant development for companies, which now need to integrate carbon management into their core business strategy. This is one of a number of significant legislative and regulatory developments advanced by the Obama administration this past year that align with the trajectory of the movement toward more corporate responsibility and accountability.
For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act linked financial revitalization to greening the economy. And the Troubled Asset Relief Program institutionalized shareholder “Say-on-Pay” advisory votes on executive compensation packages for TARP banks, legitimizing the broader “Say-on-Pay” movement at other companies. TARP also set a $500,000 cap on executive pay at banks receiving TARP money, though commentators pointed out that you could fly a Lear jet through the loopholes in this provision, demonstrating that not all Obama administration actions advanced the CSR movement.
Barack Obama himself ascended to the US presidency on the strength of grassroots movement-building. Unfortunately, Obama in many ways abandoned the movement he fostered, for example by shuttering the online networking that helped him win the election by staying in tune with his supporters. The CSR movement is heading in the opposite direction, initially slow on the uptake of social media and other interactive technologies to connect with their stakeholders, but increasingly building online networks to advance a more community-based approach to corporate accountability and sustainability – most notably, Timberland’s Voices of Challenge stakeholder engagement website. Corporate adoption of Web 2.0 tools shows promise of fueling the CSR movement into the new year and decade.
Bill Baue is Executive Director of Sea Change Media, and Executive Producer/Host of Sea Change Radio, a nationally syndicated show with a global podcast audience. This article was first published on CSRWire.