Corporate Sustainability is Itself Unsustainable

By Richard Crespin
I love my iPad…or at least I love it whenever my two-year old lets me use it.  He’s what Marc Prensky calls a “digital native.”  For him, the world has always included tablet computers, on-demand television, and the Internet.

In much the same way that my son lives and breathes technology like it’s a part of him, we’re seeing the rise of a generation of “sustainability natives” who have never known a world without sustainability. While there are many of us who are no doubt corporate responsibility pioneers and early adopters, we’re taking what were once considered “externalities” and internalizing them.  In contrast, for the sustainability natives, corporate responsibility is part of them.  Always has been, always will be.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that, unless we take some specific steps, we as employers and business partners, suppliers and customers, are bound to disappoint them.  The field and profession of Corporate Responsibility is not set up for long term success.

As part of its mission to empower individuals at all levels to improve corporate citizenship, the CROA has been conducting a multi-layered research and development program for the Corporate Responsibility (CR) profession. The latest findings from that research point out some disturbing structural flaws that, if left unaddressed, will prevent CR from becoming a mature field and lead to a serious generational conflict in the workplace.

First, let’s define what we mean by CR.  We define it as maximizing the positive impact of business while minimizing or eliminating the negative.  Next, let’s distinguish what we mean by the field of CR versus the profession. In the field of finance, there are concepts and methods that anyone can use and there are a subset of people who make a living using these concepts and methods.  The concepts and methods make up the field, the practitioners make up the profession.  Similarly, in CR, there are concepts and methods that can be used by anyone to improve the citizenship of a company and there is a subset of people that use them to make a living.

The CROA’s latest study undertakes to formulate a snapshot of where the CR field stands today and how to mature it.  Here are three key findings from the report.

1) CR remains a nascent profession

A mature profession has certain characteristics currently lacking or underdeveloped for the CR profession, including:

  • Recognition by society.
  • An accepted body of knowledge.
  • Applied research related to the body of knowledge.
  • A recognized professional society.
  • An ethics code.
  • A professional credential.

CR barely fulfills any of these today.

2) Dearth of educational capacity with no clear leaders

“The state of play in the academic study of CSR is not great.  There is no center of excellence that I know of…” – Academic respondent to CROA research study

A mature academic field has certain characteristics currently lacking for this field:

  • A robust pipeline of educators, e.g., a sufficient number of new PhDs graduating each year.
  • Program specialties and sub-specialties.
  • Academic research and publishing.
  • Graduate-level programs.
  • A core curriculum.

Without enough teachers and enough material to teach on, the profession is not sustainable.  Moreover, most of the research available today on the value of CR is anecdotal – a collection of stories mostly gathered by consultants, not real scientific data across multiple companies, industries, and years.  Making the CR business case really requires the academy to produce this kind of research.

3) It will take deliberate, collective action to mature the profession

The CR profession is stuck in a chicken-and-egg conundrum:  before employers will place real value on Corporate Responsibility it needs to have a defined body of knowledge that stands behind it; before educational institutions invest in that body of knowledge they need to see a clear demand for CR professionals.

The reality is, though, that the demand already exists, but it’s a supply-side demand.  Students demand sustainability.  According to the Princeton Review, incoming college freshmen rank sustainability among the top three criteria they use in selecting a college – so much  so that Princeton Review launched a special Guide to Green Colleges.  Which brings me back to the sustainability natives.

In our 2011 CR Best Practices Study,we found that big businesses and small businesses invest in CR.  Mid-sized businesses lag.  Why?  Well, one possibility is that big businesses are forced into it while small businesses, which are predominately newer businesses, have young, entrepreneurial sustainability natives at the helm.  Both see it as a talent-attracting advantage.  The lesson: the war for talent will be largely fought and won on the CR battleground.

CR professionals need to be more engaged in shaping the future of their field and in turning CR into a recruiting- and retention-asset for their companies.  One immediate way to contribute is by helping to refine the body of knowledge.  Having an accepted body of knowledge will mature the profession and provide the structure educators need to contribute to the pipeline of professionals. It will also let young, aspiring professionals know a) that their future employers value CR, and b) what they need to do to make themselves more valuable to those employers.

Only then can we call CR a sustainable profession.

To contribute to the Body of Knowledge, join the CROA.

Click here to download the full report and participate in an active dialog about it.

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