Are CSR Initiatives Really Appropriate in All Circumstances?

My initial response to the question posed in the title is “Yes.” Blog post over.

Naturally, it’s not that simple.

Being an MBA and an environmentalist, I’m well aware of the conflicting interests between corporations and maintaining our natural environment. These conflicts have only become increasingly strained during the economic downturn…

But WAIT! Don’t click back to your Twitter feed just yet; this post isn’t about how to justify CSR strategy during a recession. Though very important, that topic has been explored at length, with CSR philosophers pondering whether we can afford to invest in sustainability and demonstrating how we can build a business case around it.

No, this post is more personal than that. A friend of mine works at the Toronto office of a company large enough for one to expect a little action on the CSR front. Unfourtunately, this is not the case. In fact, this particular office (hang on to your coffee cup…) apparently doesn’t even recycle.

Photo credit: TheTruthAbout...


To see if this was true, I asked to be put in touch with someone who is responsible for their facilities management and soon I found myself exchanging emails with a facilities coordinator who we’ll call ‘John’.

John told me that the company had been greatly affected by the recession and that the non-paper recycling program had been cut to reduce costs. They were still set up for paper and cardboard recycling, but that apparently wasn’t really working either due to an apparent compliance issue with the cleaners.

Knowing a bit about the company and wringing my hands at the possibility of a good case study, I invoked the usual suspects of CSR strategy. I suggested checking with the cleaners to see if paper recycling is included in their contracts and introducing cost-saving initiatives to offset the cost of re-introducing a more comprehensive recycling program. I also mentioned the other benefits of office CSR initiatives, including team building, morale improvement, and brand protection.

But John still pushed back.

It wasn’t so much the fact that he resisted that struck me, but it was his genuine concern. He suggested that their entire company should focus exclusively on driving sales and to distract from that would be irresponsible. He cited his hardworking colleagues trying to keep the company afloat and said if any savings were to be realized, they should go to paying them what they deserve. This was not about employees being lazy or averse to change.

He has a point. Things are apparently looking ugly for his company and CSR won’t help morale much if everyone is underpaid. Just ask Maslow. But I had some pushback of my own, saying that if properly implemented, most cost-saving initiatives probably won’t distract the sales force to the point of losing business. Also, even if sales are increased, it likely won’t be directly tied directly to compensation. We agreed that cost-saving programs might be a good idea if the savings are left to the bottom line. This might at least ease some pressure and show management that the employees are making an effort.

We never got the chance to talk about cost-cutting plans. I just found out that John got laid off today.

Happy Labour Day. True story.

My point for this post was not to relate a sob story or rehash the well-established arguments for CSR, whether in a recession or not. The lesson here for all CSR professionals and ‘green team’ volunteers is to pick your initiatives carefully and pay close attention to the context of the situation. John was right, trying to spend the savings would have been too much in this case. Yes, CSR is important, but context is everything and the implications are real. Just ask John.

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About Daniel Caunter

Who is Daniel Caunter? Daniel is a series of contrasts – Environmentalist MBA, anglo Montrealer, landlocked surfer, serious about fun, and creatively practical. He has lofty ideals, but is focused on finding veritable solutions that will work in reality. He is a work in progress, building a career in environmental business with a focus on stakeholder engagement, project management and corporate communications. Daniel can be reached via Twitter (@danielcaunter), or by commenting here on this site. If you’d like a real-time update on this work in progress, he may even be persuaded to come out for a pint or a cuppa. (Please note: the views expressed in Daniel’s posts are his personally - though sometimes satirical - and are not necessarily those of his employer or other don’t be silly.)
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One Response to Are CSR Initiatives Really Appropriate in All Circumstances?

  1. Daniel – Your post is very topical – especially in the face of the recent Wall Street Journal Article “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility” ( But before we throw the baby out with the bath water let’s look at the facts.

    First – we live on a finite planet.
    Second – we are at the end of cheap energy.
    Third – our practice of burning fossil fuels and using other chemicals has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere by more than 100 ppm since the start of the industrial revolution, which commits us to a minimum planetary temperature increase of 2C and more if we don’t take drastic actions now (for business this means a price on carbon, possible carbon tarrifs and disruption to supply chains).
    Fourth – World population will creast 7 billion this year (up 6 billion from 200 years ago). Just with this year’s weather disruptions we are going to have challenges feeding the world’s population. It is only going to get worse.
    Fifth and beyond – Water is running out, top soil is eroding (an area the size of Texas is lost every year) and we are losing 14,000 species each year – the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs.

    Business cannot proceed as “business as usual”. Externalities are starting to become internalized. Today we live in a “blissful” sweetspot where it appears that we still have a choice. We politely wrangle with the questions: Should we implement CSR or not? What is the best way to do it (voluntary, regulatory, market driven etc)? Can these initiatives be bottom up if senior management is not yet on side?

    History will look back on us shaking its head at our primitive naiveté. “Couldn’t they see the writing on the wall?” future generations will ask. Perhaps rather than abandoning John to his lay off – we should be giving him and others in our companies the insight and job skills most urgently needed to implement the changes that must take place – helping them to see that the game has changed. We need CSR, Sustainability, Eco-Efficiency or whatever you want to call it – because of the bust, it is not a game only doled out during the sunny days of the boom.

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