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CSR has been used by companies to box up and separate certain kinds of issues, like poverty or environmental degradation, from the commercial activity they engage in. The attraction of this is obvious; it allows them to get on with the serious business of making money, while claiming to be responsible or caring about many of the side effects of their commercial activity.

Taking this approach is to miss an opportunity and misunderstand how many of these issues will in fact be resolved in societies driven by commerce. For climate change, bio-diversity loss and poverty (to name some headline issues) are not separate, or external to economics and how we make money. They are integral. If we want to tackle them, then we need businesses to innovate and transform, and develop goods and services that reflect these ecological and social realities.

So what has this to do with CSR, which has proven to be such an ineffective tool for achieving anything?

Innovation is a uniquely social affair, in that human beings generate novelty in their many and varied interactions with one another. An analogy might be diversity as the driver for biological evolution. Novelty is the key ingredient for innovation, which in a social context means new meaning, or movement in thought occurring between two people interacting with each other. This is not to say that all social interaction leads to innovation, it does not.

To understand this perspective, we must recognise that human beings are interdependent, not independent of each other. This means that personal identity and ways of thinking are created between people in social interactions, not internally or independently from others. Professional expertise, like all forms of identity, is not developed remotely, but with experience and in context with others. It is this process that enables people to develop the value-based judgments used everyday in businesses and elsewhere. It is anything but formulaic, even if a good deal of our behaviour is driven by social norms, or the rules of engagement we learn as children.

If we accept these insights, then we see that to generate new professional expertise around social and environmental issues, professionals and/or people in businesses need to interact and engage with different constituencies, in different contexts with different experiences, in their capacity as professionals.

This is precisely what CSR can be used to facilitate and why it holds great potential, particular in the current system of economics, which only values more now, leaving anything remotely esoteric, or longer term, difficult to do. No business operates in an economic vacuum and economics does currently externalise many of the issues we are interested in. This means that it is very difficult for businesses to spend time engaging with them, or internalising their cost in some way. Whereas, CSR is already an internalised and established practice.

CSR projects, or budgets can be where employees get to experiment and explore how what they do relates to an issue itself, so they can develop their own narratives and insights in conversation with others. This in turn can be taken up and incorporated into their work in any number of ways.

Some businesses understand this idea and the potential commercial value in engaging in this way. For example GSK and Save the Children recently announced a partnership to tackle previously forgotten developing world diseases in markets that are currently non-existent or commercially unviable. BBH and Slum Dwellers International are working together to promote sanitation, in a market that is of commercial interest to them. And Danone is learning how to service the needs of people living in poverty in Bangladesh and developing their nutritional expertise in the process.

These projects deal with intractable issues while getting to the heart of what the businesses do. They contain the potential for something commercially different and original to happen that may not otherwise have taken place.

Some will suggest that this is simply self-interest dressed up as something else. But to dismiss them in this way is to lose sight of what most governments are pre-occupied with, promoting ‘economic growth’ under the doctrine of capitalism, of which businesses (and by proxy innovation) are the key agents.

This all sounds great and on message and a nod to the much vaunted notion of ‘shared value’ touted by some. But as we have learnt in our own practice, this type of engagement is not easy to do. First, there is often no outcome that can be easily and quickly quantified. Second, it can be expensive. Third, it needs employees to donate work-time, the rarest of commodities in the corporate world. And finally it requires some imagination and a willingness to challenge the status quo, which is not easy for many in commercial environments.

These points help to explain why so much historical CSR is toothless: because it’s designed to be, to minimise the immediate perceived cost of acting. CSR is also not a panacea. Things will not be OK if every business sends a few employees to a slum to ‘learn’ something, as some executive retreats hint at.

Instead, what we are seeking to acknowledge is that issues like climate change, poverty, or bio-diversity loss will undermine the fabric of our society, diminishing the quality of all of our lives. If we are serious about tackling them, and we genuinely believe in the transformative capacity of commerce to do good and improve the general well-being of all, not destroy it, then what we are discussing here is an accessible starting point.

But businesses must be prepared to invest in the activity, just as they would any commercial activity – if that is, they want to begin a meaningful, commercially focused and potentially more valuable conversation about what to do.

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