As they have done for several years now, the Financial Times invited a number of their leading writers at the end of 2007 to give their predictions for the year ahead. Stefan Stern, who writes for the FT on management issues, wrote: "Goodbye to corporate social responsibility? Never mind rising sea levels: the waves of cynicism washing over corporate executives as they push their CSR agendas promise to become life-threatening in 2008. In the inevitable life cycle of management fads CSR is now heading for the exit. Customers are generally unconvinced by the hype. And "social responsibility" was always too flimsy a concept to gain serious traction with business leaders.
That gives us a clue as to the identity of the next Big Thing in management: sustainability. Unlike CSR, this concept has some meat and commercial potential to it. Innovations that make money while helping to reduce carbon emissions are actually worth pursuing. So here's one further prediction for next year: the urgent rebranding to be carried out by all those CSR consultancies, which will be replacing the old acronym with the more contemporary "sustainability" label."1
Some may think this is semantic fiddling whilst Climate Change and planetary degradation burns. They would be wrong. Any campaigner or marketer will tell you that language matters. It can frame the debate. Look at how American politicians have tried to use wedge issues by shaping how voters perceive the question: "right to life?" or "right to choose?" "Gay marriage?" or "Civil partnership."
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes: "There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, makes it irresistible. All you have to do is find it." As last year's Lifeworth review described, CSR provides an arena where people influence the definitions and frames concerning businesses' role in society.2 Ironically then, "Corporate Social Responsibility" is not the term one would create if starting from scratch and trying to package information in a way that would resonate with businesses. Rather then sounding "irresistible", it can sound complex, earnest and dull. "Sustainable business" or "sustainable enterprise" suggests long term commercial success as well as environmental and social sustainability. This Annual Review discusses the emergence in 2007 of 'sustainable enterprise' as a new rallying cry, defining it as "innovative commercial activity that generates sustainable development" (see 'sustaining conversation'). The owner-manager of Impact Development Training Group, David Williams has adopted it as the mission of his company, describing sustainable enterprise as "about creating and innovating new business strategies and activities that accelerate positive social change, protect and preserve environmental integrity, whilst enhancing business performance."3. Instead of emphasising responsibility, the focus is on opportunity. This is particularly important if we are to engage the mass of small and medium size businesses around the world - an argument developed in a Doughty Centre Occasional paper: 'Small is sustainable (and beautiful!) - encouraging European smaller enterprises to be sustainable'.4
This is part of "a new mindset for Corporate Sustainability", as a number of us from universities around the world including MIT and Beijing, have argued in a new paper of that title. We argue that with such a new mindset, businesses can increase innovation. This "can help open the doors to radical new business models, engage profitably with previously untapped markets, and enable the business to become a truly agile, strategic entity through a systemic and integrated approach."5
Linking to business opportunity, will make it easier to embed inside more companies. However, we still need to identify the barriers that even the businesses committed to Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability recognise they face in embedding their commitment in their core operations; and find practical ideas for how these could be overcome. This is a key part of the work of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility. It will also be the theme of the 2008 Colloquium of the European Academy for Business in Society (EABIS) which will be hosted by Cranfield September 10-12th 2008. The title for this year's colloquium is: "Corporate Responsibility: leadership and organisational change."6
All of these are essential elements - but still only part of what is going to be required - for the kind of global step change which Jem Bendell argues for in his introduction to this latest Lifeworth Annual Review. The urgency of the global challenges we now face such as on water, food, poverty, makes the search for better models of sustainable development ever more critical. This is why we need to speed up the dissemination of new ideas, make them more readily available and easily accessible. The Lifeworth annual review is one practical way of doing this. I am delighted that the new Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility has been able to help make this happen this year.
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