The boundaries of how people think of corporate social responsibility imploded last week with an op-ed by Dr. Aneel Karnani in The Wall Street Journal. The post was positioned with a question: Can companies do well by doing good? By the end of the week, there were 252 responses and several dozen blog responses that left me spinning from information overload.
While I didn't find much value in doing a counterpoint post to Karnani's article, it instigates a conversation on building work that shifts our economy from a growth economy to what Nick Robins, head of The Climate Change Centre for Excellence at HSBC, describes as an "ecology of growth."
A comment by CSR reporter and sustainability expert Elaine Cohen emphasizing that "responding to Karnani takes us back 10 years, wasting time writing about how CSR is important, defensively, rather than moving on and getting on with it," made me reflect on the implications of the sound and fury of corporate responsibility.
What is the real case for change to build a sustainable economy?
The BP oil spill proved that today's world is out of synch with reality and the case against corporate social responsibility is already out of date. CSR needs a new trajectory of continuous learning that pushes academics, students, legislators, social entrepreneurs and nongovernment organizational leaders out of their silos, ensuring everyone asks a very basic question:
How am I contributing professionally and personally to build a sustainable economy?
The speed of change and harm has been increasing exponentially since 1982, when the Brundtland Commission was first convened. May 2010 is a month few will forget:
--We were reminded once again of the stock market volatility and potential repetition of September 2008;
--The BP oil spill reminded the world how connected people and nature are to business;
--The global markets' reception to the iPad raised a question: "Can the culture of business value workforce health and stability?"
How many events must occur before the global community launches a trajectory that repairs our ecosystem to sustain the environment, people and economy? While the Brundtland Commission inquiry has continued to examine harm and how to exercise precaution, with numerous conventions over the past three decades, including writing the Earth Charter, global harm continues to accelerate.
At the end of the CERES conference in May, President Mindy Lubber provided a strong statement calling for a change to corporate practices:
"Sustainability has to be integrated to what we do, our earnestness and starting on solutions is more rapid than before...the goal of our conference is about taking it up a new notch and setting up a series of new best practices...working with companies to integrate sustainability into everything they do... products, facilities, holding supply chain accountability and tying that to CEO compensation and all they do."
The following week, 1,200 people from around the world convened in Amsterdam for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) biannual conference. At this conference, Kumi Nadio, a newly-appointed leader to Greenpeace International, opened his presentation by proclaiming that "it is not business as usual."
By the end of that week, Mindy Lubber's strong call for integrative reporting was integrated into the voices of the GRI community in Amsterdam with an announcement that the 7,700 voluntary corporate members of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) had formed a partnership with the GRI.
Additional developments this year included:
--The UNGC delisted 859 companies from its membership ranks for not complying with the UNGC reporting requirements
--The World Business Council for Sustainable Development published its report Vision 2050, a pathway to sustainable development,
--By the end of June, the UNGC had formed a partnership with GRI and published a framework for a new model of Sustainability Management.
My point is this: There are currently enough people doing sustainable work from us to craft tales of meaningful use. I have spent the better part of a decade on research, understanding movements in a global economy where the boundaries of institutions and expert disciplines can no longer inhibit the change that is needed to build a sustainable economy.
The question that remains then is this: How do we not get caught up in the movement of change so we can join others to construct change that has economic impact?
Some of the people and companies who are doing this already include:
--President of NYU John Sexton
--Researcher and Faculty at Harvard School of Education Howard Gardner
--Companies like General Electric and Wal-Mart that are investing in innovation, adopting the Triple Bottom Line approach in financial management, and investing in their supply chains to impact health, environment and safe chemical practices.
A Benchmark for Today: Beyond Movements of Change to the Work of Sustainability
The work of shifting to a sustainable economy requires resources, timelines, investigation and learning that movements of change cannot muster. To me the flurry in social media this past week offers an opportunity to benchmark perspectives for the next generation of work we are all being called to do.
This new form of work requires a forum that sustains a long-term view while we work in the short term. We are required to become more disciplined in exercising a precautionary view. Our focus has to give attention to a vision in action where our vocations serve to build a world in which we sustain a future while sustaining ourselves to move beyond the global recession now challenging all of us.
--By Lavinia Gene Weissman. Ms. Weissman is a consultant, ecologist and leadership coach for leaders building cultures of work that embed education based on a value for sustainability. You can read more about what her work at AboutWorkEcology or connect with her on twitter @workecology.
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