In November The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility was published, including over 300 entries spanning 544 pages.25 A useful resource, it also highlights the growth in terminology concerning companies' relations with society. Some of the terms used the most in the West in the last 2 decades feature, such as environmental management, sustainability, stakeholders, corporate social responsibility, corporate accountability and corporate citizenship. As the Lifeworth Review of Corporate Responsibility 2006 identified, the meeting of people and organisations in discussion about CSR is a phenomenon that could tip cognitive frames about the role of business in society, so definitions are important. The concept of "luxury" was identified at the top of a pyramid of cognitive frames about progress and quality that influence the business environment and need to change as part of a cultural shift towards sustainability.26
One term that began being used quite extensively during 2007 - sustainable enterprise - does not appear in the A to Z. In 2007, conferences in California27 and Cornwall employed the theme. The University of North Carolina has established a Center for Sustainable Enterprise, as has the Stuart Graduate School of Business28, while Cornell University now has a Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.29 Coventry University is launching an MA in Sustainable Enterprise, and Griffith Business School30 has made the promotion of sustainable enterprise its overall mission. At the British House of Lords, "The Roundtable in Sustainable Enterprise" met throughout 2007 to discuss policy innovations.31 The buzz continues in 2008 with the Impact Conference "Leadership for Sustainable Enterprise" in June.32
The growing popularity of the term reflects a number of trends. First, that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is still often regarded as, and practised as, corporate philanthropy, whether by its advocates or critics. Commentators from McKinsey, Foundation Strategy Group Advisors, and the Eden project, amongst others, often describe a 'straw man' of CSR as a form of guilty philanthropy that can distract us from the commercial opportunities in addressing societal needs.
Second, is that corporate citizenship has become an unclear term more of intellectual discussion than practical use. It was promoted in the late 1990s as a way of emphasising corporate leadership in addressing societal problems, helping move the focus away from internal operational responsibilities to a broader focus on partnerships.33 The notion of it actually describing corporations behaving as citizens, and thus as members of political communities that govern their rights and freedoms, has not taken off in the business world, although it remains in civil society, academia and policy fields as 'corporate accountability'.34 The term has now been further elaborated and reworked to suggest that as people are dependent on corporations for the realisation of their rights as citizens, we are somehow in an era of corporate citizenship.35 The debate about problems with corporates having rights US courts of law and in some international trade agreements complicates this further, and thus the term is not as widely used in the business world.
A third reason is the upsurge in interest in entrepreneurship coming from California. That interest is backed by billionaires in their 30s, who founded companies like ebay, google, myspace, etc. They have poured funds into projects and people that use entrepreneurial approaches to solve social problems. The term being used by groups like the Skoll Foundation and Schwab Foundation to describe this approach is "social enterprise". Some use the term purely to describe for-profit enterprises and entrepreneurs that solve social problems. Others make no distinction between whether the enterprises are for profit, not for profit or charitable. This leads to a situation where people who previously would have identified themselves as activist, or community worker, now win prizes as social entrepreneurs. The pen is mightier than the sword, when signing cheques. Muddying the distinction between those who use market approaches but do not seek to make profits for shareholders, and those who do, will only be useful to the latter - and their investors. The focus on and excitement with enterprise is, however, relevant, as it reminds us of the transformative role of disruptive innovations that move markets to new patterns of social provision and power relation.
Fourth, is the resurgence of interest in the environment and how the commercial implications of this are now clear, with vast amounts of money flowing into environmental technologies. Consequently "sustainable enterprise" appears to capture the new mood. A definition might be: sustainable enterprise describes innovative commercial activity that generates sustainable development. Expect to see it in the 2nd edition of the A to Z. Also expect to see debates, papers and perhaps even conferences about the difference between social enterprise and sustainable enterprise. Then expect to see CSR champions who want some of that enterprise buzz rebranding themselves as working in "responsible enterprise". While we are at it, let us offer a definition: responsible enterprise describes innovative commercial activity that voluntarily considers its social and environmental effects; it may help resolve social problems or promote sustainable development but the foremost purpose is commercial.
That is not to be facetious, but to recall the use, power and limitations of language. Terms that become popular, like social enterprise is, and sustainable enterprise is becoming, are useful as they help convene people to share ideas. Hundreds of people conferencing in rural Cornwall in October is a reminder of that. The emphasis on enterprise is useful, as it is hopeful and encourages a practical and action oriented focus. Yet the power of language is also to exclude. Thus growing attention on social and sustainable enterprise may draw attention away from how to deal with unsustainable and anti-social enterprise, and how to address challenges that can not be solved through the marketplace, let alone the system of wealth accumulation and financing we call capitalism. Issues of governance and power may be marginalised by the concept, yet working for policy frameworks that guide innovation and profit seeking towards more socially and environmentally appropriate activities is important.
Just as a map is not the terrain, language is not the reality it describes but a reality of its own. Words are our choices about how we wish to conceive of the world. French painter Georges Braque once said "to define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing itself."36 That is not inevitable but a risk. Intellectual debate and teaching can be constrained by not seeing beyond the words used. Critical discourse analysis, the deconstruction of the meanings in terms and the power relations they embody and exert, can help us to see through words but this analysis needs to be connected to and integrated with practical experiences of the matters at hand if not to be lost in itself.
When looking at the issues discussed in the name of sustainable enterprise, what is new? At the Eden Project in October, Professor Malcolm McIntosh, from the Applied Research Centre in Human Security at Coventry University, explained "this conference is about hope and excitement." Stories from successful entrepreneurs like Cate Le Grice Mack, founder of Norwood Rare Breeds Organic Farm enthused the participants. Representatives from larger corporations, like Phil Smith, of CISCO systems, explained how a commitment to sustainability helped energise their staff. The existence of a niche for eco products and of a motivation-based business case for large corporations is not new. Neither is the disbelief from informed delegates when they hear speakers such as James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, saying 'sustainability can't be bolted on. It has to be part of the core business strategy' during his opening address. Shell's core strategy is investing in high technology approaches to access unconventional or difficult to reach fossil fuels. Discussions "revealed a split of opinion between those calling for fundamental change to match the size of the problem and others who backed incremental steps to achieve the same goals."37 It's a debate that has raged throughout human history, and been a fault line between those working towards more mandatory corporate and capital accountability and those who propose more voluntarily responsibility.
The event closed with Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden project, boldly stating that 'within 30 years almost every major company will be a social enterprise.' Whatever the changes in business culture and regulation in the coming decades it is likely we will witness a new buzz term before then. New terminology may sustain a conversation, but not necessarily a change. Whatever people label people in future, lets hope it empowers us all to act.