Thursday, December 11, 2008

Corporate Responsibility: Dead end street?

I have been working and advising on corporate responsibility and sustainability issues for almost 15 years, having started my career in Northern Canada collecting SD indicators on First Nations communities. My over 12 years in Europe was a leap forward as environmental policy-making is decades ahead as compared to North America. Since my return to Montreal almost 3 years ago, my surprise of the slow progress has left me somewhat bewildered. Hey, I thought, this is an opportunity to work with companies in order to help them "see the light" (fully integrating sustainability as a core competence). But sustainability --and CSR/ Corporate Responsibility --reporting has hit a dead end street. This is blatantly obvious: from shipping companies with questionable targets and lack of data, to casinos claiming to be on a sustainable path, to over-stretched environmental groups who lack the resources and expertise to act as veritable watchdogs, the situation begs the following question: has CSR reporting hit a brick wall? After all, companies can choose what to report, how to report it, and when to report it. So what if there is third party verification? Many argue that a "first step" is required and that companies need to "walk before they can run" but if I cause serious injury to an individual, wouldn't I suffer the consequences immediately? As Paul Hawken wrote in The Ecology of Commerce (1994):

In order for free market capitalism to transform itself in the century to come, it must fully acknowledge that the brilliant monuments of its triumph cast the darkest of shadows. Whatever possibilities business once represented, whatever dreams and glories corporate success once offered, the time has come to acknowledge that business as we know it is over. Over because it failed in one critical and thoughtless way: it did not honor the myriad forms of life that secure and connect its own breath and skin and heart to the breath and skin and heart of our earth.

With the election of Obama, change has come to America. This is also coupled with a financial crisis and the questioning of market capitalism. The current situation represents a formidable opportunity for industry to reinvent itself, to launch new and dynamic business models having sustainability at the heart. Many sectors are afraid that a new direction will slow down growth, hamper their competitiveness and bring them to the brink of bankruptcy. Hence, I will outline how this will NOT happen if a few rules are followed! More to come...