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Corporate Social Responsibility isn’t dead – it’s just getting started

I’ve heard it a few times now – suggestions that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has had its time and we’re moving on. It’s dead, they say. Millennials killed it. We can all be carrying on with business as usual from here on out. The danger of this narrative is that it assumes three things: that the CSR space has stopped innovating, that CSR just equals sponsorship, and that ‘ethical’ business is just the domain of social entrepreneurs and enterprises with enlightened hearts.

A quick Google shows gloomy predictions of death to CSR

To start with the first assumption there, it’s fairly true to say the CSR space has been slow to innovate. We were invited to an awards ceremony the other week that gave out awards for Corporate Sponsorship based on a quantum of money given to community projects, as opposed to basing the awards off a more holistic point of view.

Similarly, a big company has been using #savetheturtles recently, after years of knowing the impact of straws and getting away with it, even though we all knew better. The problem is that standards for ‘responsibility’ are set back in the early millennium, and so there’s a growing dichotomy between consumer expectations and what companies are actually called CSR. Innovation in this field is required to get us onto a playing field we can go home proud of. But that still doesn’t mean CSR is dead, it’s the opposite. It means there’s still a long way to go.

On the idea of CSR = sponsorship, it actually still does. But it’s more than that too.

Is sponsorship ineffective sometimes, does it lead to co-optation sometimes, is it a quick and dirty way to greenwash, sometimes? It can be. But do we still have one in four New Zealand kids living in poverty in this country? Do we still live in a relatively regressive tax environment, are there social investment gaps in our society? Do our mental health support services need funding? Can businesses be a part of creating this change?

They can be pivotal. The issue with equating CSR with sponsorship is that there’s a risk that it’s all it ever becomes in our minds. But the CSR space, at least philosophically, has been evolving. Corporate Social Responsibility today encompasses protocols for cultural engagement, diversity, sustainability, ethical procurement, accessibility, and building up depth in your community-programmes. While the next generation has been creeping into the workplace and demanding more from their employers, CSR got really, really holistic.

Which brings us to the final idea: that CSR has been upstaged by the social enterprise model. It’s really important we get this distinction right.

As much as I would love to live in a world where every business operated as a social enterprise, we’re still living in a ‘my scone got served with a single-use plastic butter pot yesterday’ sort of world. Most companies don’t have any CSR policy written down and award panels frequently don’t get their gender balances right. You better believe there are some orders in for promo products that never need to exist this Christmas.

The hard truth is that we’re not all on a journey to drive social impact. This isn’t to say that we’re not massive fans of the social enterprise space – because we are, but we also don’t think the sector benefits from being too oppositional. Social responsibility is a spectrum, and it’s our job to move more companies along it. The role of CSR leaders is to shape the standards for the rest of society. To set a bar that says, ‘Hey, this is good enough, and hey, this really isn’t anymore. You have to stop that. You have to stop serving butter in microplastics.’ We can do better, society says no dice, goodbye.

So, what can we do?

The best way we can hope to do in this space is set some clear, universal standards for CSR reporting. Right now, you can’t look at a company in New Zealand and see whether they’ve nailed it or if they’re doing a bit of a wash on us. There’s no commonality between what an SME does, what a corporate does, or what an industrial manufacturer does. There’s no transparency in this industry, and that’s the step change we have to make. We’ve got to get to a place where there’s a common language between businesses around social responsibility, so any of us can show up at a workplace and get an instant feel for their commitment to the environment, their people, their customers, and their wider community.

Until we get this language right, and until we start reporting consistently and transparently, we’re not going to make any improvements. They’ll keep telling us CSR is dead. Luckily there are some changes happening in this direction; between Step Changers, our friends at Benefaction, the big consultancy firms, and the whole soc-ent space, there’s a few players dedicated to this industry now, who are working to make CSR better for the rest of us.

So rest assured friends, millennials did not yet kill corporate social responsibility. It’s a space that will keep innovating, and it’s got a long, long way to go yet. Long live CSR.


Step Changers is a registered charity in New Zealand dedicated to raising the standards of Corporate Social Responsibility. We match businesses with community-projects that need their help and support teams to implement great CSR programmes. If you’d like our help, you can find out more about our work at stepchangers.org.

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