Monday, June 7, 2010

CSR Conversations About Good and Evil -Or; BP, Apple and Us

Ever since large corporations such as Nike, Shell and Monsanto began facing increased scrutiny from civil society – mostly for putting short-term profits far ahead of environmental responsibility and job security- an industry has ballooned to help these companies respond. It seems clear, however, that many in the corporate world remain utterly convinced that all they have is a `messaging problem’ one that can be neatly solved by settling on the right, socially minded brand identity.

It turns out that’s the last thing they need. British Petroleum found this out the hard way when it was forced to distance itself from its own outrageous rebranding campaign, Beyond Petroleum. Understandably, many consumers interpreted the new slogan to mean the company was moving away from fossil fuels in response to climate change. Human rights and environmental activists, after seeing no evidence that BP was actually changing its policies, brought up embarrassing details at the company’s annual general meeting about BP’s participation in a controversial new pipeline through sensitive areas of Tibet, as well as its decision to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. With the new slogan being parodied on the Net as Beyond Preposterous, BP officials moved to abandon the Beyond Petroleum brand, though they have so far stuck with the new green flower logo.

As evidence of the state of corporate confusion, I frequently find myself asked to give presentation to individual corporations. Fearing that my words will end up in some gooey ad campaign, I always refuse. But I can offer this advice without reservation: nothing will change until corporations realize that they don’t have a communications problem. They have a reality problem.

This was written eight years ago by Naomi Klein and is excerpted from her book : Fences and Windows – Dispatches from the front line of the globalization debate. . Before we get to the gist of the issue consider these more contemporary news pieces.

Apple computers is now the world’s most valuable computer tech company surpassing Microsoft and now has a market capitalization of approx $120 B. This coincides with Steve Jobs touting the release of the new iPhone – that caused one tweeter to note that the new phone has a soul. This is comedic in some ways, tragic in others – when one considers that Apples 2010 supplier responsibility progress report indicates that only 46% of the suppliers agree to the code of conduct limiting worker hours to 60 per week, and of those only 60% were compliant with standards around minimum wage and benefits. (It begs the question, how can the phone have soul, but the company is void). This adds fuel to fire of the speculation of the cause of deaths by suicide at an Apple parts manufacturing plant in China. Yet, despite the widely touted advantages of the net, the ability to fact check and have this story go viral – from my vantage point has anything occurred to slow down the massive rush for iPads and now iPhone 4’s? – Not that I know of.

The number of tweets breathlessly anticipating the arrival of the new technology is staggering, with over 100 tweets in two minutes. To get 100 hits on the #CSR hashtag –took 4.5 hours. This is a simple, non-scientific was to illustrate that as a society we love our bright shiny things, and will evidently will turn a blind eye, a deaf ear or simply tune out bad news from companies that deliver something to us that we want. BP is rightly the poster boy of the month for public floggings, but let’s be real clear…the disconnect between BP stated values and their behavior was identified years ago – yet in our hunger for the oil are we not complicit in allowing their destructive practices to continue? And similarly are we not complicit now in allowing Apple to flaunt basic employment codes and to avoid the almost inherent need to set, establish and print CSR targets?

CSR has shifted from being predominantly philanthropic (which met the needs of the company) to being more strategic, yet as was pointed out by Warren Levy in CSRwire talkback, “ CSR is an activity yardstick, a leading indicator of contributions that, though positive, can co-exist with unsustainable behavior that eventually will overwhelm any good that’s done.” He goes on to argue that the standard for behavior should be shifting from the “’no tomorrow” behavior or BP and perhaps Apple and instead consider the self- explanatory “grandchildren standardI like bright shiny things too, but let’s be clear of our responsibility and yes, our hypocrisy as we flog some companies and flaunt others. I really hope, that in ten years we are not cursing ourselves for supporting Mr. Jobs – and wondering “how the hell did that happen” as we respond to another social or environmental calamity.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.

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