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 Is to make money right? Absolutely yes, but let’s not kid ourselves – there are rules. It’s not as if you can just do what you want to do. The “free market” might sound like a pretty neat idea but that only exists in theory. If markets were truly free we wouldn’t have all the subsidies, incentives, trade limitations etc that almost all companies benefit from or lobby for in some or other way. All markets are regulated to ensure that they serve a purpose. A social purpose that goes beyond shareholder gains only.

Do companies seriously want to debate this? Then give back your subsidy. Drop the demands for more favorable trade rules. Your business is about making money within a set of rules. Live with it even when all those rules don’t slap you on the back and give you money.

Some rules are written into law and you have to comply to them. But some rules are unwritten – the social contract you have with society as a whole.

Let’s put it in another way. We have laws regulating individual behaviour. These laws did not come from nowhere. Before they became written law, they were the unwritten rules we had as a society to organize ourselves and somehow get us to live in some sort of pact – harmony being a dream only. Before we wrote down a law that said – don’t kill, murder etc – we had that as part of the societal contract. It was a societal contract governing our behaviour. One that organized how we lived with and amongst each other and the roles and responsibilities each of us had towards each other and ourselves. We “gave up” our freedom to pillage and burn to gain from living with each other. A societal contract that defines and creates society. One that helped us move forward as a specie instead of going off driving individual gain only. There are and were many of these societal contracts to help drive cohesion. Stealing, murder, property rights, trade etc.

It’s the same for business. There have been unwritten rules of engagement – the societal contract to ensure that they serve a broader positive societal role and not purely out for personal gain. For example – Rule one, don’t sell me snake oil. And eventually that made it into law. Don’t sell me food that will kill me. That eventually became law. All of these regulations are there to underscore the societal contract that existed before the actual law was written.

And like any law, it became more complicated the longer we lived together as a society. Those who don’t value the societal contract will try to find new ways to break it to stay within the written law or even change the written law. But because they are breaking the unwritten societal contract, we need to rewrite and bring in new written laws. Take killing for instance. It was pretty simple, you shouldn’t kill someone else. Well, what happens if it was by accident? Or in self-defense. Oops, let’s expand on that law a bit. And it becomes more complicated each day as people and companies try to find new ways to break the societal contract by finding ways to undermine the written law. (I wonder if these ‘complications’ with writing the societal contract into law were the first example of lobbying as well?)

Business cannot just operate the way it wants. It serves a societal need whether it is bringing the goods we need to us via a retail shop or provide us with the fuel we need to keep us warm or just get around. It does not have the freedom to do what it wants to do for the sake of itself. It must serve a purpose (real or perceived – thank you advertising) and play within the written and unwritten rules. You can’t exploit workers for the benefit of your bottom line. You cannot dump toxic materials into the water streams used as drinking water just because it is better for your bottom line. You can’t knowingly sell a product that will kill people even if it does help your bottom line. You can’t lie to people about what your product does just to increase your bottom line. You can’t use your bottom line as the sole reason why you do something – legal or illegal. That bottom line is not always in the interest of the bottom line of society – to live and prosper.

The unwritten rules and social contract with society is based on trust. People trust that you will do the right thing. It’s why people tend not to like government regulating behaviour – it not only creates the perception that it limits freedom but it goes against the principle of trust. And, of course, government will argue that these laws are there to serve the societal contract and ensure (consumer) protection from those who refuse to work within the spirit of the societal contract. The societal contract is based on trust. But lobbying behind their backs to “get away with it” because of greed or any other reason breaks that trust. The trust is broken when companies lie about their impact and when their impact is not beneficial to society – today or tomorrow. Especially if the company does it on purpose – knowingly. When you break that trust you break the societal contract. Then you cease to have a reason to exist. It’s not in the interest of the societal bottom line.

So, the business of business is to make money but only within the confinements of the societal contract – written or unwritten. The next time you lobby for something that is in the best interest of your company or you hide your true impact or your falsely advertise the benefits or impact of your product or service, do ask yourself if you are breaking the unwritten contract that you have with society.

Do you serve a purpose that is beneficial to society? And please refrain from drinking the Kool Aid. Think before you drink. Consider the truth before you answer. Because you are also a member of our society.

The business of business is to serve a societal purpose. We love it when you make money while doing this and we see this as the reward we provide you because you are one of us and doing something good for all of us. Now go and have a purpose. A real one.

So the next time you use the line of “the business of business is business” or argue against CSR or sustainability – please think again. Your responsibility might lie with your shareholders but your licence to operate lies with us. The people. CSR and sustainability is our way of defining the rules for you. We don’t expect you to like it but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Live with it. Implement it. Embrace it. Or maybe we’ll just have to revoke your licence.

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Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

This post of mine was originally posted on the goodpurpose blog.

Once again, I realized that a conclusion that I drew one year ago on Corpprate Social Reality still holds true: there are a myriad of factors influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions, and purpose can be a point of differentiation for brands.

The goodpurpose study validates my claims. The most recent study found that when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price, consumers worldwide value social purpose as the deciding factor over design, innovation and brand loyalty. We’ve re-posted the old blog below, and hope you’ll take a look for insights into consumer behavior that should inform your business’ decisions today.

 

So, consumers don’t care?

I was reading an old blog giving 4 reasons why most consumers don’t care about corporate ethics. It was an interesting read, and I will respond in more detail on the other issues at a later stage. But one issue stood out again – consumers just aren’t willing to pay the price. This typical excuse simply argues that people won’t do something as opposed to delving deeper into why people buy products.

If price is the only issue then Nike would not sell one shoe nor would Starbucks [disclosure: Edelman client] sell one cup of coffee. Okay, so quality has something to do with it, so (some) consumers will consider price and quality when buying a product.

So why do people in the US still buy American cars? A few years back, American cars were generally more expensive and of lower quality. But people bought them, because they were American-made. Okay so price, quality AND origin can all be part of consumer decision making criteria.

So why do some people buy from Home Depot instead of Lowe’s? They are equal in price, quality and origin. Well, maybe because the types and quality of services they provide cater to specific consumers. So consumer decision-making is about price, quality, origin and service.

And so on, and so on, and so on. There are always many reasons why people buy certain products and not others. We must realize that consumers are not a single robot or unit, but that everyone has their own criteria which they use to when making a decision to buy something. For some, quality ranks highest (that is why people are still paying $200+ for DVD players). For others, environmental impact or health attributes are most important.

Brand value is complex. And going beyond price and quality to include environmental or social issues in the brand positioning helps companies further differentiate their products from competitors. By going forward with corporate social responsibility messages, those issues become part of a range of brand elements.

Also, ethically-sourced products don’t necessarily have to cost more–although this is a common misconception. Some products might be more expensive, but corporate social responsibility (CSR) can also reduce costs and create opportunities. CSR is about doing business better – all around. If you are working with your suppliers to make them more efficient, you gain. If paying staff a decent wage can make them more efficient, you gain. If looking after the environment ensures you still have a product to sell tomorrow, you gain. As each consumer is different, so is each company. We need to acknowledge this and build the ‘corporate social responsibility solution’ around what makes business sense for each individual company and product or brand.

I have been trying really hard. Really, really hard. You know. To be a treehugger. I think the whole concept of being a treehugger is really cool. You get to have the beard, the nice lean and muscled body, tanned and tough as nails. With my sunglasses and Bermuda shorts. Sandals and a knowing look in my eyes. Man. I am so cool. Me, the treehugger. But first, let me find a treehugging job…

The rebel of the forest. Defending the last natural old forests of our precious earth. These beautiful beasts whose breath gives us our precious clean air. The green jungles that hides the therapy for the soul and body. It’s there and we must protect it. And that’s what I do. I live in the forest. Patrolling every inch to make sure these wise old trees stay safe. Safe from the loggers. I am the phantom. I live in the trees at night and run like a tiger during the day. Stopping and smelling the air to see who is here. Who will feel the wrath of the rebel. But… Eww! What is that? What is that smell? It smells like something rotten – must be the dead carcasses. And those creepy crawlies! Worms and bugs all over the place. And the bloody ants crawl up my pants the whole time. And the food stink – fruits day in and day out. I need a BigMac now! And just water and water and water. If it isn’t drinking this foul stuff then it is raining and raining and raining. I now get why they call it the rainforest. It’s always bloody-well raining. Gotta get outta here. I need some fresh air, a warm bath, a beer and a braai (barbecue).

The activist of the seas. I can see myself. Standing at the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon for those whale-hunters. Now I am the hunter. Like a pirate of old. Ready. Just ready to take them down. They don’t know my rage. My fury. I am the king of the high seas. I have seen things on these seas of mine. Corpses of people. And corpses of animals. Those dead whales we try and save. But not anymore. Not on my watch. I will… Pthu! Bloody seawater sprays everywhere. Standing on the bow wasn’t such a good idea after all. The water sprays everywhere. Salty water in my mouth. My body feels sticky all the time. And all we get to eat is bloody fish and more fish. And crap desalinated water. The boat stinks man. Like dead fish and men who haven’t had a proper wash in months. My hair is a permanent mess. And my hands. My poor hands. Cut to pieces by working the lines and ship each day. Oh, man. It doesn’t help that I get seasick from watching fish-tanks either. Gotta get of this ship. Now! I need some clean linen, a warm bath, a beer and a braai.

Okay. So I can’t be an active treehugger. That’s fine. I’ll just be a greenie. I’ll just live green then…

It’s a good start. I use public transport. Okay, I don’t use it because of any green reasons. I am just too bloody lazy to drive to work myself. I have too short a temper to sit in the traffic all day. And I am too stingy to pay for parking and tolls. But still. It is a good start. Oh, wait. I also have a refillable mug for my daily Starbucks fix. I am saving a few rainforests that way. No cup for me. No sirree, Bob! Not for me. Except when I forget my cup at home. Or when I am too lazy to clean my cup for a refil. Still. It’s the idea that counts though. Doesn’t it?

My problem is that I want cool stuff. The jobs look cool. But it isn’t really. It’s only cool if people can see you do it. And there is no camera following me. Treehugging just isn’t cool enough for me. Me fighting global warming? No problem. Just make it a bit cooler dude. Global warming just isn’t that cool.

I mean really. The iPad is cool. A red Ferrari is cool. The Kinect is cool. So many companies make cool stuff. Not green stuff. But that’s cool. As long as it is cool dude. That’s the problem with treehugging. The stuff that make us want to hug trees just aren’t cool man. And at my age I need to have cool stuff. Because I am not cool enough by just my little older almost middle-aged self.

So gadgets don’t work for me trying to be cool and a greenie. Let’s try something else. Something that says cool and green in a big way.

Let’s buy a Prius! Okay, let’s not. The Prius is just not cool. It’s a lunchbox on wheels. An ugly lunchbox. Come on. The Dodge Challenger. Now that is cool. The Toyota FJ Cruiser. Now that is cool. I can see myself behind the wheel of a brand new red Challenger. Sunglasses and all. Revving the motor while eyeing the guy at the traffic lights. Ready to smell my tires dude? Bye-bye. Oh, and the surfboard on the roof of the FJ Cruiser as I sit on the bumper looking at the waves through my cool Ray-Ban glasses. Now that’s cool. The Prius? Nah. Not so cool. I’ll look like the man I am – on the older side of the surfer group. All I can fit into the Prius is my neat little suitcase and a clean shirt for work.

The problem is that most stuff that makes treehugging easier just isn’t cool. Oh, there is a few cool stuff out there. Wind-farms. That’s cool. Neat Apple-like designs. That’s way cool. One small problem though. I can’t carry it around with me to show it off. And you need to show it off if you want to be cool. Oh, and it will take up the whole bloody backyard. Kids won’t like that I think.

Global warming is even more difficult. I can’t point to it. I can’t go, “See, there it is. There are those damn CO2’s”. Just too little these things. These stupid little molecules. Wind-farm to big and CO2 too little. That just ain’t cool. That’s so way not cool.

But those kids of mine. I sometimes wonder. Just wonder how cool it will be when they grow up. Will it be too warm when they are my age? Might be a bit too warm for them. A little bit too warm to live? And that is so way not cool…

Maybe it is time for a change. Climate change. Now that is way cool!

This post was originally posted on Vault’s CSR Blog – a great resources and a huge thank you to Aman Singh! It was part of a discussion between Alberto Andreu (Chief Reputation & Sustainability Officer at Telefónica)  and I on CSR and Sustainability. He countered with a great post. Great guy and great thinker. It was an honor to have such a constructive discussion with someone like him.

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I am afraid Alberto and I violently agree with each other on the most important aspects of CSR: Where it comes from and where we are today. Where we might not agree as much is whether this is still CSR.

In my view, CSR is not a revolutionary process but one that continues to go through many changes—an evolutionary process. The graphic below is my first attempt to describe this evolutionary process.

Phase 1: Philanthropy

In its initial phase back in the 1970s, CSR was all about philanthropy and what business should do with some of its profits. Small shifts in thinking pushed this early form of CSR forward. Companies became more strategic with philanthropic initiatives and tended to focus on projects in their local communities. This eventually grew into Corporate Social Investment that brought a business sense to philanthropy – focusing on results and outcomes.

 

Phase 2: Globalization Forces Standards

Slowly, globalization started shaping our world more and the impact of business in this globalized world became an increasing focus for activists. From a narrow focus on philanthropy we moved into an era of citizenship. Companies became business players in a globalized world, or, as it became known, Corporate Citizenship.

They started developing standards to manage their risks. This led to the need for global standards – from extractive companies and human rights to how we report on CSR today.

Phase 3: Citizenship-led Cause Marketing

When the term cause marketing was initially floated, CSR became something business could benefit from for the first time. It was a huge shift in how we perceived CSR,– not just risk management. This benefit-based approach brought operations back on the table leading to the development of CSR as a business strategy.

Now, CSR was suddenly not about cutting costs but about increasing profits.

Phase 4: CSR & Sustainability Tied with Future Business Growth

The latest evolution of CSR, or sustainability, has taken this concept of business benefit even further and started looking into the future of business and society—the heart of CSR. Sustainability today looks at finding mutually-beneficial solutions to the challenges we face as society as well as future challenges.

But CSR, even today, is  still about how business can operate profitably within this role as a responsible citizen toward society.

From Reactionary to Risk Management

We have moved from a reactionary model of philanthropy to a crisis-led model in the early stages of globalization to a risk-based model in citizenship to a mutually-beneficial business model in sustainability.

We might have seen our understanding of CSR deepen throughout this evolution but the definition of CSR hasn’t changed much over time—CSR is the way a company manages and communicates its impact on society and the environment.

Many of the individual parts of this evolution (Philanthropy, standards, etc.) remain with us today but these are not the only parts of CSR anymore. We’ve adapted and moved on – keeping the good stuff, improving on them and adding to it.

The world of CSR is very, very different today. But it is still CSR.

An Argument for Terminology: Corporate Social Responsibility Fits Best

While this might be somewhat semantic in nature, it is still an important part of the debate: We should look at the description of CSR itself. Why do we use these very specific three words to describe what we do?

I would argue that the concept is actually a very good description of what we do today. Here’s why:

Corporate implies that this is about business.

  • It not only describes that we are busy with a discipline involving business but goes deeper.
  • It is about profits – how we make them and how we can make more of them today and tomorrow.
  • It is not about charity.
  • It is about building a sustainable business model that will continue to deliver business results for stakeholders – especially shareholders.

Social tells us this is about society.

It is about the impact business has on society and how we can manage this impact to ensure both business and societal benefit.

Even the environmental part of CSR is about society – how we can minimize environmental impact to benefit society in the end of the day.

The new developments in CSR – sustainability – further continue to prove that CSR is about a mutually beneficial relationship between product and service development, and societal value chains.

Responsibility reveals that business does carry a responsibility in this world – to do business in a way that benefits both business and society. Further, this responsibility gives business the opportunity to create new solutions to the needs of society. I would even argue that it is their responsibility to develop these new solutions and benefit by capturing new avenues of sustainable profit.

All three concepts—Corporate, Social and Responsibility—tell us exactly what we do today. CSR is also the perfect reminder of the relationship between business and society, and the responsibility they have towards each other. None of the other concepts proposed today actually tell us what we are doing and what we should be doing.

I say, long live CSR, and may it continue to evolve and change our business world for the better.

Can you remember the first time the two of you got together. The stolen looks, the uncomfortable moments of silence, the tripping over your sentences, the sweaty palms, the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not thoughts, the private meetings when no one was looking, the uncomfortable first meal together. Yes, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. Just as with any relationship in the early wooing and courting stage, stakeholder engagement is never easy at the start.

Most companies just don’t know how to talk to activists and campaigners. Hey, make no mistake, activist hardly knows how to talk to companies either. But they don’t need companies to like them as much as what companies need them to like them. Or at least leave them alone and not target them.

Don’t feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes not. I remember seeing an anarchist kicking a Nike sign at the battle of Seattle in ’99 – while wearing his Nike shoes and top…

But there are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage and start courting. This is not an exhaustive list. Just a few tips to get you through those first uncomfortable early stages of stakeholder dating.

Firstly, do your homework and find out a bit more about the NGO and what it regards as its ‘bottom line’ – it is unlikely to be financial! I was invited to speak to the global affairs team of a very large pharmaceutical while I was at Oxfam (I headed up the Access to Medicine Campaign for a while). I was shocked to hear that the majority of people at the company thought that Oxfam only worked on health issues. And this happened when Oxfam was in the middle of their Coffee Campaign! Dig around a bit first and find out what the NGO does and what is their mandate. Most of them are registered with a constitution that states what they should focus on and how they should work. This will help you understand whether there is any potential for a longer term constructive relationship – or just a one night stand. Also a good tip when you start dating – know who you are dating. Except if you like blind dates.

Secondly, respect the differences between NGOs by not lumping them all together in the same room for a consultation exercise – NGOs are proud and competitive too. You wouldn’t want them to call a whole bunch of companies together and still expect special treatment just aimed at you. You should respect their differences and treat each one differently. Rather meet each one separately in an environment that works best to put them at ease. Meet them where they feel most comfortable – maybe at their place. Especially if you want to build the foundation for a long-term relationship. And even this should work best for real dates – don’t bring all your prospective dates together in the same room. They might just start sizing each other and you will be left with no date at all.

Thirdly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the only company that is the target of the NGOs campaigning efforts, or that the NGO hasn’t other programs and projects that may have nothing to do with business. Just as with the large pharmaceutical company I mentioned, most NGOs have numerous focus areas and different programs and projects to try and achieve their overall goals. And most large campaigning NGOs have various campaigns going at the same time. They might have one single broad focus, but it plays out in different campaigns and programs. For instance, Greenpeace might be about the environment, but they focus on climate change, oceans, forests, genetic engineering and nuclear issues. So your company might only be a small part of their focus and interest. Same with real life dating. A friendly smile does not mean they want to date. It might just be a friendly smile.

Fourthly, start by talking, learning about each other and building trust rather than starting by expecting ground-breaking strategic partnerships. There might be a few obstacles to overcome – perceptions of what ‘big business’ is all about and a feeling that you want to ‘clean’ yourself by associating with them. Take it easy and just talk. Let them get to know you. Don’t create expectations. Just listen and learn and see where this might take you. Again a good tip for real life dating as well. Don’t ask them to marry you or expect ‘the commitment’ on the first date – it might just scare them off.

Lastly, remember that cash does not necessarily have the same currency as it does when buying products or services from other companies. First and foremost NGOs want to affect change. But they don’t always see money as the way to achieve change. Yes, some of them have huge budgets and operate like multinationals. But they generally have strict guidelines on receiving money from companies. For instance, Oxfam will not accept money from companies that fall within an industry they target in their campaigning. They might not even accept money for travel – never mind for a program. They would rather see you ‘do the right thing’ than pay them to do something. Okay, this one is less relevant for real life dating. Money generally impress prospective dates!

Okay, one more tip. Don’t expect them to agree with you on everything. And don’t make this a prerequisite for your potential relationship. I love my wife to bits. But we only agree 80% of the time. But we don’t let the 20% of the time we disagree define our relationship. No. Focus the relationship on what you have in common and don’t get stuck on the differences. It’s part of being human – we are all different. And the same for companies and NGOs – we are all different. And I learned that I am wrong 20% of the time in any case. Just ask my wife.

I’ve always been sceptical about CSR rankings and ratings. Partly because there are just so many of them. It sometimes feels as if we have a ranking and rating system for every company. Just find the one that fits your needs and away you go! But this also underlines a deeper problem with rankings and ratings – is it even possible to have a ranking or rating system capture all the differences and diversity amongst businesses?

Citizen IBM had a good piece on how CSR Rankings Can Be Improved. They capture some of the key problems I have – from the needs to acknowledge the differences in industries to the need for continuous improvements to full transparency in the criteria used. But I don’t think they went deep enough – and I would like the scratch the surface a little bit more.

Firstly, as Citizen IBM mentions, the differences between industries should be acknowledged. But it goes deeper than purely the differences between those who manufacture and those who offer services. And it’s these differences that makes it even more difficult to take rating systems seriously. Let’s remove the obvious difference for a moment – let’s exclude for the sake of argument services companies and only focus on companies who manufacture.

Even within manufacturing the differences are just too steep to make a single standard rating workable. Most rating systems looks at the impact of the manufacturing process – environmental impact, workplace practices, financial performance,  governance etc. Most companies within manufacturing can be judged according to these, right? Well, just hang on for a minute there…

What most of these rating systems focus on, measure and rate are the impact of the process and not the impact of the actual product delivered by the manufacturing process. Let me give you an example, it is possible for a tobacco company to have excellent CSR practices in their manufacturing process and therefore rank better than say a pharmaceutical company. But the actual product delivered by the pharmaceutical company is vastly different than those from a tobacco company – the one contributes to the health of society and the other do the opposite.

Now it will be easy to exclude tobacco companies – and many do. However, the basic principle remains. The extremes are easy to differentiate – and we can exclude tobacco and arms manufacturers. But what about comparing the products of an oil company to a pharmaceutical company? How do we judge the end product and the impact of that end product? Especially when we start bringing in the idea of sustainability – leaving the future world in a better or no worse place. How do you rate a product that positions us better for the future against a company who serves an immediate need but at a high environmental and sustainability cost? How do you rate a software company who connects sustainable solutions to a company whose software is used for warfare? The differences in what the products deliver becomes complicated and makes comparisons complicated and almost impossible.

Even within a single industry it is complicated and problematic – how do you differentiate between an energy company that produces only oil to one that only produces solar or another “green” energy? And what about a traditional oil company spending more and more on alternative energy? How do you judge the future impact and value of the product or service?

The approach to ratings also undermines a key development in CSR over the last few years – finding the opportunity of mutual responsibility or shared value between the company and its stakeholders (or society at large). Companies are increasingly seeing CSR as a way to create new opportunities that will be beneficial to both the business bottom line and the needs of society. But the approach of rating systems doesn’t allow for this to be reflected because they focus on the impact of operations and not the business model and approach to CSR. You can (and will) therefore have companies who practice CSR the old way (ticking boxes, compliance etc) have a higher rating than companies who seek new ways to create product and service solutions that will benefit both society and the business itself. Too many ratings take a “tick the box” approach instead of looking at innovation, opportunity, mutual responsibility, societal benefit etc.

And it goes even deeper than that…

The drive towards a common standard has another unwanted impact – individual criteria might mean a company have excellent rankings on some but fail on others. Especially those areas where their major impacts are. Let’s say a company rates highly on governance, philanthropy, financial performance and the environment but their major impact is actually on human rights. And let’s say this company then operates in countries where child labor or forced labor are fine. The fact that they have great rating in all but one will most likely give them a good rating overall. But they fail in the area that matters most to their specific company as it intersects with society. Again, the standardization of ratings therefore fail to acknowledge the area of major responsibility and impact of the company.

That’s my biggest problem with ratings and rankings. They focus too much on the process and too little on the impact and value of the actual products and/or service delivered and those areas of major impact and responsibility. A single standard rating and ranking to compare all companies cannot capture these differences adequately. Rankings and ratings go for the lowest common denominator and fail to truly rate those who benefit society today and tomorrow and fail to acknowledge the differences in impact between different industries – or even different companies within an industry.

Frankly, I don’t rate ratings and rankings that much…