The American Society for Quality (ASQ), the Milwaukee-based performance and quality advocacy organization, is hosting the “Pathways to Social Responsibility” conference here in San Francisco. For twenty years this organization has administered the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award that recognizes performance and excellence in products and services. ASQ had a role in the draft of ISO 26000, the international standard on social responsibility. Now the organization that includes 85,000 companies and individuals sees corporate social responsibility (CSR) and quality as a match.
To that end, John Elkington kicked off the conference. Elkington, who has advised many multinationals on CSR-related issues and founded two consultancies –SustainAbility and Volans –coined the term “triple bottom line” back in 1994. His thirty-five year career includes writing or co-writing 17 books, a faculty role at the World Economic Forum, and as a board member or advisor for organizations including Bayer, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Nestle, Recyclebank, and WWF. Now Elkington is leading the next chapter in CSR.
Elkington reminded his audience during his ASQ keynote that sustainability is not the same as CSR, nor should its importance be diminished while companies consider ways to achieve a balanced triple bottom line. While more companies and their executives have displayed an increased commitment to sustainability and sustainability in words and even in some deeds, there often exists a misunderstanding of what those terms really mean. Elkington said that now more than ever, companies need to be proactive and not reactive in their approach towards social responsibility–and definitely not act just to neutralize bad press or consumers trending away from their products and services.
Companies like Walmart and GE have proven that measures including waste reduction and the increase in use of clean energy technologies not only “do good,” they can make a difference on the balance sheet. Hence quality can increase the quantity of financial returns. According to Elkington, however, companies will have to shift their resources and revamp their long-term thinking in the coming decade. The philanthropic model of the 1980s and 1990s, and the momentum behind CSR the 2000s, will morph into what Elkington described as the rise of social innovation–the movement to find new strategies that can strengthen both businesses and people.
Some companies have already embraced the social innovation approach. Cisco has been a leader the past several years, and now HP is achieving impressive work with using its technology to effect positive change around the world. Thinkers who touted ideas like banking services to the poor or tending farms in blighted urban areas are now gaining access to the C-suite. Once often dismissed as “crazy,” they now can share their ideas of how technology and innovative business models can both improve lives and heal the planet.
Ten years ago, performance, sustainability, and social responsibility were arguably silos, and doing good and being profitable were viewed as an either-or proposition. But the evidence shows that efficiency and performance do not have to result in a social cost–so if you work or strive to work within this space of sustainability/csr/social innovation . . . expect this to be an exciting, not frustrating, decade.