Exploring a Flawed Paradigm: Why Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not enough

By Chad Park, Executive Director, The Natural Step

The following editorial by Chad Park, Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, appeared in the Corporate Citizens Mediaplanet Special Report in the National Post on December 28, 2011.   Reprinted with permission.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is outdated and counterproductive to successful enterprise and the global sustainability imperative.

CSR encourages us to incorporate environmental and social considerations into a business-as-usual scenario. This is the triple-bottom-line approach and is often depicted with three overlapping circles representing economy, society, and environment.

This is a flawed paradigm.

In fact, economy, society, and environment are not three equal parts, but function like

A nested model of sustainability reflects the reality that social, environmental and economic systems are interdependent and intertwined.

nested eggs. The economy occurs within human society, which in turn exists within the natural environment. The natural capital provided by the Earth sustains everything that exists within it. Accordingly, almost every global mega-trend tells us that without a radical transformation of the way we conduct business, a wide variety of risks and pressures will continue to harm profitability across the board.

Speaking metaphorically, the car we are driving is heading toward a cliff. By adopting CSR in its current form, we are softly applying the brakes and only buying ourselves a little more time. In this scenario, going over the cliff is inevitable and simply a matter of time.

Instead, we should be focused on turning the car around.

Most companies continue to ask themselves: “Based on our business plan, what should our CSR strategy be?” But to succeed in the future, businesses must instead ask: “In light of the global sustainability imperative, what should our business plan be?” Massive opportunities await the organizations that come to grips with the root causes of unsustainability and design them out of their businesses.

Companies like Nike, Interface, and The Co-operators are leading the way with sustainability as a mobilizing corporate strategy, increasing their profits, while generating substantial goodwill, and laying the foundation to be relevant in a sustainable future. The leaders in corporate sustainability will thrive as the operating environment inevitably becomes more difficult, leaving the laggards to perish in their wake.

We need to collectively acknowledge that we aren’t doing nearly enough to succeed in the rapidly changing economy of the 21st century, nor enough to create a society that thrives without drawing down our life-giving natural capital.

Incremental improvements are not enough. We are in need of transformational change. Now is the time for Canadian businesses to exit the highway of unsustainability and chart a new course.

POST NOTE by Kathryn:

Our transformation toward sustainability is a transition to a holistic, systems based perspective.  For too long we have taken a reductionist, siloed approach to our way of living in this world.  There are many ways to reconnect these systems, and one means to this end just might be starting with Corporate Social Responsibility.  The danger, as I see it, is if we stop at CSR.  It may not be the end of the journey but, for some, could be the beginning.  To better understand this perspective, check out our upcoming ISO 26000 course on Social Responsibility:  Integrating ISO 26000 (Social Responsibility) into your Management Systems, commencing Feb. 7th.

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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