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Is It Time To Ditch the CSR Department?

| Monday December 12th, 2011 | 0 Comments

What is the latest debate in the CSR space? If you think it’s about the business value of CSR, think again. That debate is so 2010. Right now it looks like everyone is debating a totally different question – should companies ditch their CSR departments?

Last week this debate was intensified when Keith Weed, Unilever chief marketing officer, told Marketing Magazine CSR departments are redundant. “We don’t have a CSR department – if you have a CSR department, then it’s an add-on,” he told the magazine. This statement came a week after his boss, Paul Polman, discussed Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in an interview, saying this is not “a CSR-type appendix,” but is at the heart of Unilever’s plan to double its turnover.

When such a statement comes from a green business leader such as Unilever you better not take it lightly. And they’re not alone. It’s not hard to find other CSR professionals that share the same sentiment and believe CSR departments have no place in today’s companies. On the other side, there are those who believe that CSR departments play an important role and have been instrumental in the successful formulation and implementation of sustainability strategies in many companies. They feel the only need is to make CSR departments stronger, not to get rid of them.

The arguments to eliminate CSR departments include:

1. Having a CSR department puts responsibility into a few narrow hands – In her book, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, Carol Sanford tells the stories of about 20 companies who have no CSR programs or departments and yet achieved, in many cases, more responsible actions. She argues that companies’ approach should transform from a position approach to a pervasive approach, “e.g. from a CSR department or officer to how we do business in everything.”  Sanford told Marc Gunther in an interview that “with a focus on CSR, you get officers, you get programs, you get incentives. If you are given a target that you are to achieve, people focus on the target and the processes. Instead, people need to feel free to express their highest values and beliefs at work. Humans are most alive, and most creative and innovative when something comes out of them as a person. A company should be more like a jazz quartet and less like a conducted symphony.”

2. CSR departments lack power – Many times CSR departments are established but are not given clear authority, like other traditional departments. The result is that they become weak and can’t achieve much. Seb Beloe, former VP of Research and Advocacy at SustainAbility, believes this lack of authority is a common problem. He told BusinessGreen that in some businesses the CSR department’s influence is so limited that environmental campaigners and NGOs are rejecting them as a point of contact, and are instead trying to directly access more senior executives. This argument is a bit old, but still very relevant.

3. CSR is just like other values companies nurture without giving them a separate department – The idea is that CSR is a principle, no different from other principles companies would like to integrated into their business, yet they don’t make special department for them. Marc Gunther explained this, saying that “efficiency is obviously an important goal for any good business. So is creativity. Treating workers with respect. Producing quality products. These goals/values are typically pursued by everyone. There’s not a Department of Treating Workers The Way You Would Like To Be Treated. (And please don’t tell me that’s the job of HR.) So why would we want to segregate or compartmentalize CSR?”

Sounds convincing? Here are the arguments to keep the lights on in CSR departments:

1. You need leadership to build and execute strategic CSR – Just look at other business megatrends that we witnessed not too long ago like IT, explain Dan Esty and David Lubin in their article The Sustainability Imperative. They remind us that “when CIOs first came on the scene, the role was ill-defined and narrowly focused. A limited set of problems was seen as suitable for IT solutions. Now CIOs play undisputed strategic roles with implications for all functions and business units. Strategic sustainability initiatives need similar C-level leadership.”

2. Without a CSR central unit, you have a CSR chaos – In his book, The Future of Value, Eric Lowitt tells the story of Ed Rogers of UPS, who was in charge of formulating the company’s sustainability strategy. Rogers describes the situation before he took charge in 2007. “At the time, our sustainability efforts were conducted on a well-intentioned but disconnected basis by many different functions. Talent management was championed by HR. Society investments and volunteerism was championed by the UPS Foundation, which is our charitable arm. Environmental management was led by our plant engineering function.” This sort of inefficiency, not to say chaos, is exactly the risk companies have when they don’t have a central unit that will connect all the dots.

3. CSR is more like marketing, not efficiency – Just like you don’t really think you can get rid of the marketing department by declaring marketing is part of everyone’s job, you can’t expect to spread the seeds of CSR among employees and just hope for the best. It just doesn’t work like that – you need professionals that will make decisions and monitor the big picture. You need them in marketing, you need them in finance and you need them in CSR.

This debate is far from being resolved. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts.  What do you think – is it really time to say goodbye to the CSR departments, or are we far from that point?

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Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.


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