Steven's Blog

CSR is No Indulgence

I find it disturbing when business leaders choose to use CSR to compensate for ethically questionable business.

A responsible business contributes to the society it serves through its primary business activity, not only through good deeds on the side. The most successful business leaders I know understand this truth implicitly, and many have led their businesses in socially responsible ways long before so-called corporate social responsibility became a thing.

The CEO of a major U.S. beverage brand gave a talk not so long ago describing the impressive CSR activities of the business he was leading. Nearly the entire talk was devoted to the company’s CSR, with little mention of its primary business. The company was encouraging peace and understanding between Pakistan and India, allowed international aid such as vaccines and medicines to piggy-back on its beverage distribution network in Africa to reach the more inaccessible regions, etc. All laudable. All with slick videos designed by shrewd PR professionals to tug at your emotions and make you feel great about the company.

But, what about the company’s primary business?

The first question during the Q&A and the end of the talk asked the CEO’s thoughts on how the company’s corn syrup laden fizzy drinks have been identified as a major cause of both child and adult obesity in the United States. I assumed this CEO gets asked this question frequently enough to have a well-prepared answer.

“Well, that’s why we offer so many alternative beverages like our diet versions, which my own teenage daughter drinks.” The CEO explained that he advises moderation in both the diet and non-diet sodas, which he imposes on his daughter. When asked how much diet soda his daughter drinks, he said with a straight face, “Six cans per day.” In the United States, that’s about two liters of diet soda per day. Let that sink in.

There was an audible gasp from the audience, the members of which clearly had a different idea of what “moderation” means, particularly when it comes to their children. None of the company’s CSR was able to attenuate the audience’s shock.

Corporate social responsibility is not an extracurricular activity, nor should it be treated like a medieval-era indulgence available for purchase to offset premeditated sin. Click To Tweet

The most successful business leaders I know cut ethically questionable business rather than compensate for it with CSR.

Most people can identify what is ethically wrong. It is the ethically questionable that causes people to waiver, make excuses, and rationalize. If you have any doubts about any of the activities of your business, you need only ask yourself one question. Is the world made a better place in some tangible and sustainable way by the business we do, as opposed to by the CSR?

Asking that question is the first step in authentic social responsibility.

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