The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the new DNA of Business, by Wayne Visser

Article published on June 26, 2011.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) today is not about being good, it’s about being less bad. No book needs to tell us that even if everyone were to start being good right now, we are still heading towards global degradation. Government legislation doesn’t seem work or hasn’t been rolled out with enough conviction, while NGOs lacks clout. In a world where corporations actually account for a larger slice of the global economy than countries do, Wayne Visser suggests that only businesses have the money and power to make big changes.

With that premise he begins by describing how we ended up here; how business and responsibility in the community has been evolving up till now in the ages and stages of CSR. Using case studies, he illustrates the Age of Greed, characterised in the 1980s by the dramatic rise and fall of Lehman Brothers and Enron. To describe the Age of Philanthropy, he recounts the story of John D. Rockefeller, known best for his extraordinary wealth built on the back of his oil monopoly, but less known for his forward-thinking social responsibility for staff welfare and charitable activities. The Age of Marketing is described by companies that ostensibly appear to be doing good things and garnering good public relations, but are doing little more than aligning CSR principles to their overall strategy, rather than aligning their overall strategy with CSR – a term Visser calls ‘Systemic CSR’. The Age of Management is characterised by contemporary brands Nike, Starbucks and Cadbury, where CSR has been embedded into management strategy. Finally the Age of Responsibility is populated by CSR 2.0 pioneers such as Seventh Generation, Body Shop and Grameen Bank.

Having brought us up to date with accepted business practices and inherited thinking from a variety of references, Visser illustrates clearly that our old view of CSR is not working, or simply won’t be enough to tackle the problems we are facing. He begins then to sketch out what new CSR could look like and achieve. He hitches two growing forces in today’s world together; sustainability and web technology, and likens ‘Web 1.0’ to early ‘CSR 1.0’ – in their emergence, new worlds trying to find ways of expanding, engaging communities and manipulating outward image, with early pioneers like Netscape and Traidcraft quickly being squeezed out by large multinationals like Microsoft and Wal-Mart. Likewise he compares ‘Web 2.0’ to ‘CSR 2.0’; the growth of networks: partnerships, shared information, collective intelligence and stakeholder involvement – power becoming decentralised, and experience becoming less exclusive and more shared.

The second part of the book describes the 5 principles of CSR 2.0, namely creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality and circularity. Visser dismantles common misnomers with regards to CSR and economic growth, pointing out that corporations up till now have made a mistake in excluding the billions of (base of pyramid) people that have nevertheless represent an significant market. A ‘glocal’ approach is needed to capture those markets and can do so both profitably and ethically. He describes a new paradigm that pushes boundaries in a way that is supportive, allowing for freedom and creativity, and fostering innovation. Now and in the future, customers should not have to choose between a product that is affordable, and one that is sustainable. He evaluates old models of business and CSR, and makes suggestions for new models, buzzwords and mnemonics to provide a framework for this new approach.

Every era has it’s theme, a wave on which the front-runners will surf and lead the way. The fifties birthed consumerism, in the sixties it was anti-war and free love, the seventies heralded a new technological revolution, and the 80s was the age of capitalism. Now a new age is dawning; the age of technology and the age of sustainability. Modern role models are increasingly at the forefront of these fields, and where other leaders are not, they are beset by advocates of sustainability from all corners to take definitive action. In this world, being socially-minded and environmentally conscious is fast becoming the norm, not the exception. Visser asserts that those that refuse to accept and recognise the changes are endangering themselves of retarded growth, public humiliation and loss of profits. Naming and shaming of bad practice is becoming more prevalent, and savvy brand-conscious consumers will vote with their feet. He offers examples of companies applying systemic CSR and leading the new marketplace for the conscious consumer, while the threat to others is that eventually they will be left behind. In this world, post-global economic crisis, surely it is clear that the end of shameless and rampant profiteering, and growth for growth’s sake simply isn’t sustainable?

Visser’s CSR 2.0 offers a wealth of case studies and over 300 references to support his observations and vision for the future. Together these offer an inclusive summary of the past 50 years, a broad review of the evolution of business theory in the realm of CSR, and illuminating examples that are relevant and familiar. The book is structured in chapters by dividing the ages of CSR, beginning with a case study that introduces the main theme, making them easy to navigate and digest. In the final chapters, far from pie-in-the-sky aspirations, he concludes with success stories and actual achievements from big name companies and household brands that have turned around the way they do business and the way in which they engage with the world. It is happening, it is real, we are becoming a more carbon conscious world, and Visser’s message is one of optimism and hope – we are not yet a foregone conclusion, but turning things around will take courage, and effort and a bold new way of thinking.

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  1. Thanks for reviewing my book. The dates for Enron & Lehman are a bit out, but otherwise a very thoughtful and informative review

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