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One of my most common complaints, after “Why Don’t Executives ‘GET’ CSR?” is why mainstream media hasn’t been giving due diligence to sustainability, corporate governance, employee engagement, social responsibility, the confluence of business, society and the environment, and everything else that connotes CSR.

2010: Professor Aneel Karnani’s Case Against CSR and Michael Porter’s Creating Shared Value

In 2010, there were a few noteworthy attempts. Aneel Karnani’s editorial in The Wall Street Journal on The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility, which evoked numerous blogs, response pieces, live panels and tremendous conversations.

[READ: Why There Is a Case for Corporate Social Responsibility, Despite WSJ’s Obituary]

Then came Michael Porter’s piece on Creating Shared Value in Harvard Business Review. Not only did Porter start a flurry of debates, white papers and panels, the report even introduced new hashtags for Twitter users: #CSV and #sharedvalue; and a new hangtag for consultants.

Everyone understood shared value, they could contextualize the term, even measure it, and therefore, make a better case for business and social responsibility.

Debating Semantics: CSR vs. Sustainability

At Vault and more recently at Forbes, my effort has always been to highlight issues that needed addressing, questioning, cajoling, and analyzing. Soon after Porter’s piece, I asked two experts in the field to take on the debate, which often gets lost as semantics: Henk Campher, SVP for CSR and Sustainability with Edelman, and Alberto Andreu, Chief Reputation and Sustainability Officer with Telefonica accepted the challenge.

Campher took us through the evolution of the term “CSR,” concluding that corporate social responsibility, does indeed, fit best.

Here’s an excerpt:

We should look at the description of CSR itself. Why do we use these very specific three words to describe what we do? I would argue that the concept is actually a very good description of what we do today. Here’s why:

Corporate implies that this is about business.

  • It not only describes that we are busy with a discipline involving business but goes deeper.
  • It is about profits – how we make them and how we can make more of them today and tomorrow.
  • It is not about charity.
  • It is about building a sustainable business model that will continue to deliver business results for stakeholders – especially shareholders.

Social tells us this is about society.

  • It is about the impact business has on society and how we can manage this impact to ensure both business and societal benefit.
  • Even the environmental part of CSR is about society – how we can minimize environmental impact to benefit society in the end of the day.
  • The new developments in CSR – sustainability – further continue to prove that CSR is about a mutually beneficial relationship between product and service development, and societal value chains.

Responsibility reveals that business does carry a responsibility in this world–to do business in a way that benefits both business and society. Further, this responsibility gives business the opportunity to create new solutions to the needs of society. I would even argue that it is their responsibility to develop these new solutions and benefit by capturing new avenues of sustainable profit.

All three concepts—Corporate, Social and Responsibility—tell us exactly what we do today. CSR is also the perfect reminder of the relationship between business and society, and the responsibility they have towards each other. None of the other concepts proposed today actually tell us what we are doing and what we should be doing.

Andreu on the other hand, prefers sustainability over CSR. His key points:

Using CSR as an expression is not an academic problem but one that has very tangible consequences for companies.

Organizational: The classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Most of the time, the rest of the company doesn’t know what the CSR team/executives do.

Defined functional areas don’t suffer from the same vagueness. HR is dedicated to people, the finance team crunches numbers, the operations team is in charge of systems and back up, etc. But how do you identify the team dedicated to such a vast array of duties, i.e., diversity and inclusion, environmental management, climate change, ethics, corporate volunteer management, social sponsorships, entrepreneurship, multistakeholder engagement, transparency, SRI, reputation, and human rights?

What we get instead is a big mess.

Structural: If CSR is about philanthropy, management will accordingly participate in sponsorship, PR and communications exercises because their objective is maximizing the return of investment in reputation building, not responsible and ethical business. For most companies, in fact, it is common practice for the CSR manager not be associated with evaluating social and environmental risk.

Budgetary: Let’s be honest. We all know that it is much easier to ask for a budget to implement philanthropic programs than for mapping out a business’ core environmental risks, or implementing an ethics code, or auditing the supply chain. Even in the best case scenarios, other areas of an organization will manage these issues as part of their day-to-day work but the reality is that when something is difficult to communicate, resource allocation becomes a much harder task.

Management: It’s easy to measure the impact your donations are having by stringing out the appropriate key performance indicators (KPI) for any given year. But what KPI efficiently summarizes responsible behavior? The resulting scorecard is usually so large and convoluted that even the most dedicated executives give it up because of its sheer confusion and lack of focus.

His conclusion:

The concept of CSR has been exhausted, we have to expand it for effective impact, and for that, we have to adopt sustainability. And that’s why I say, “It’s sustainability, stupid!”

The reason these debates work is because they compel people to chime in, share from their own experiences and research, and crowd-source solutions that everyone can agree on. While the debate elicited several comments on Vault, the tweets, comments, advice and feedback continued to pour in for weeks after publication.

Citizen Journalism Or Simply Responsible?

At the end of the day, media — and journalists — have a responsibility to business, to society, and to a global audience as well. Back in India when I was making the leap from kindergarten to first grade, it was The Times of India and other newspapers that became my primary sources of reading, grammar, comprehension and GK (a common monicker for ‘general knowledge’ used by school kids, at least in those days!).

Today, journalists are expected to inform and engage a vocal audience of readers. Bring in social media tools and you have a vocal and ready consumer base willing and confident to discuss, debate and make choices in real time with you. And this is where the CSR debate with Campher and Andreu did well.

For me, as a journalist and a resolute CSR practitioner, it is indeed heartening to see that those small, infrequent attempts are now becoming frequent analogies and commentaries within the circles of mainstream media.

In fact, here are three reports in recent weeks that came to my attention:

While I give kudos to Light, Lahart and Lohr for highlighting these, we — the journalistic community — must evolve to a state of journalism where good and bad business practices and sustainability are part of everyday reporting and dialogue.

The incredible work of Alice Korngold and Ann Charles on Fast Company, my fabulous co-contributors on Forbes’ CSR blog, and Marc Gunther at Fortune must become more commonplace, much more grassroots, more mainstream.

Some call it citizen journalism. For me, it’s just plain professional responsibility. We owe it to our organizations, the economy, future generations, our planet, and at the end of the day, to ourselves.


The 2011 CSR Debate: CSR is an Evolution, Not a Revolution
The 2011 CSR Debate: “It’s Sustainability, Stupid!”