Is the CSR community giving companies a free pass? Have they moved too far away from balance?

Has the CSR Community:

Lost it’s objectivity when it comes to monitoring companies? 

Become satisfied when a company merely acknowledges its harm and makes a “gesture” to reduce it?

Become so eager to find good in companies that we’ve come to gloss over how immaterial to the company’s overall operations some of its celebrated successes can be?

Are we doing our job?


Many companies make great efforts each year to write a sustainability report that showcases their progress in CSR and that portrays them as a good or even great corporate citizen. A lot is riding on this single report; a company must take ownership of its impacts, both environmentally and socially, and then explain in detail how it is addressing each of them. This must all occur while emphasizing how they are a company that shares the same concerns and values as their stakeholders. Sometimes this can be quite the juggling act, especially when a business by its very nature causes “a good deal” of environmental and/or social harm while trying to bring its products and/or services to market.

Has Corporate PR Changed?

In the world of CSR there appears to be a new, more transparent, strategy for Corporate Public Relations: Clearly outline your impacts with reasonably good metrics, set some medium or long term goals on how much less harm you plan to cause in the future, establish some 3rd party certifications for your products or raw materials and, if possible, partner with an organization/NGO that will help you reach out to local communities who are impacted by your supply chain.

For some, this new PR approach works great but for others, it can be very unsettling to be out there for any and all stakeholders to challenge and critique how you conduct business. And yet, despite all the ammunition that is publicly available to be used against companies, criticism is rather muted, except for the worst fossil fuel, mining and pipeline offenders. In fact, quite the opposite has become the norm. Awards and accolades are showered upon companies who appear to be leading in the realm of Corporate Sustainability.

Awards and accolades are showered upon companies who appear to be leading in the realm of Corporate Sustainability.

On the surface this sounds like a great trend. We acknowledge leadership for those who have navigated the unknown and reduced social and environmental harm, while hopefully clearing the path (if only a little) for others who might be thinking of following in the leader’s footsteps.

Have we moved too far away from balance?

But have we gone too far with this new PR approach where we mainly focus on the good and as long as the company acknowledges its harm and makes a “gesture” to reduce it, we call that progress and celebrate enthusiastically. Are we so eager to find good in companies (except for the worst offenders), that we’ve come to gloss over how immaterial to the company’s overall operations some of their celebrated successes can be?

Are we inadvertently disabling company’s motivation to look deeply at their business model and to never stop searching for how to do things with less or preferably NO environmental or social harm?

What message are we sending to companies? Are we inadvertently disabling their motivation to look deeply at their business model and to never stop searching for how to do things with less or preferably NO environmental or social harm?

Have we become overly tolerant? Have we led companies to believe that their steps towards sustainability are better than they actually are?  Have we moved too far away from rightful criticism when companies are making positive strides in some aspects of their business? Is it possible that through our celebrations, companies have a skewed view of themselves?

Maintaining vs. contributing

Companies talk about stakeholder engagement but do they genuinely want an honest critique of their activities?

Despite the leadership role of Unilever, can we still not call them out for the massive amount of deforestation and habitat destruction that they cause sourcing palm oil? How long do we have to wait for an alternative ingredient to be found?

Can the CEO of a resource company be called out for making his company sound better than it is? Can he claim in the opening pages of the CSR report that his company, which extracts minerals from giant tracts of land often near indigenous communities, a company that by its very nature is intrusive and upsetting to the natural environment, can he claim that his company “contributes to healthy ecosystems”?

Is it a stretch to say that the company’s biodiversity offset program which causes “no net loss of biodiversity levels” contributes to healthy ecosystems?  Isn’t the idea of not causing a net loss more like maintaining a healthy ecosystem rather than contributing to one? Words have power and a contribution in my mind necessitates a net improvement. I suppose the entire issue could probably be clarified if the company simply changed the word from “contributing” to “maintaining”.

Is reclamation really a contribution to a healthy ecosystem?

In the same CSR report the company states that, “3,610 hectares are in various stages of reclamation, bringing the total cumulative disturbed ground not yet reclaimed to 31,932 hectares.” The company reports that it does have solid plans for reclamation, but even so, is reclamation really a contribution to a healthy ecosystem?

Some might say that this is just an issue of semantics. But isn’t the message from the CEO misleading?  Reducing impacts and repairing damage is not equivalent to a contribution. This is not intended to be a condemnation of resource extraction companies. Most of us use the products they extract/refine/produce and accept that there are negative consequences. But to suggest that these companies are “contributing” to healthy ecosystems seems disingenuous.

Does your company engage with criticism or shut it down?

No company’s words or actions are beyond reproach. People take issue when they feel that they are being misled or that a company is out of touch with the impact of its business operations.

People take issue when they feel that they are being misled or that a company is out of touch with the impact of its business operations.

So what is a company supposed to do when they are criticized in the media – when its efforts, as displayed in its CSR report, are questioned?

Should they engage or shut it down?

A knee jerk response by a company might be to try to silence the critic. In the case of an individual critic, the company could choose to ignore their calls/emails or to delete their comments from a web forum. In the case of a more public critical expose, the company could attempt to sway the critic, perhaps a journalist or NGO, to alter their criticism based upon additional information or promises of improved access to information in the future. In a worst case scenario, the company could try to stifle the criticism by indicating that it would sour any existing or future relationship between the company and the critic. However, any attempt to silence criticism seems a lost opportunity. Certainly if criticism is respectful it would seem that engagement could offer some great insight to the corporation.

If criticism is respectful it would seem that engagement could offer some great insight to the corporation.

Do we still live in a world where it’s socially acceptable to take companies to task when we read something in a sustainability report that just doesn’t sit right? When offered respectfully, companies should consider criticism as valuable input, rather than a harmful attack.

Let’s hope that 2017 will be the year when companies get real about their impacts and openly engage with respectful criticism as a way to learn and gain insight. At the end of the day, a cleaner and more livable planet benefits us all.