What we mean when we say “CSR is dead”

The story behind our strapline, why we adopted it and why it still needs saying.

It’s the leading line on our website, we consistently hammer the hashtag – if CHY was a stick of rock we’d like to think “CSR Is Dead” would be running right through the middle of us.

We’re a social value consultancy committed to progress. Taking money off companies just to help them tick a box? It’s never been for us. We want to help organisations drive lasting positive change, and sometimes that means doing the important work of throwing out outdated approaches and replacing them with something more effective.

But, wait, why does that mean you need to say CSR is DEAD? Isn’t that a bit… much?

CSR is just doing nice things for the world, right? What’s so bad about that?

Nothing at all – in theory. CSR started out with the best of intentions. However, dig a bit deeper, you’ll see how the term has started to hold us back.

CSR – what is it good for?

CSR has had quite the evolution since the term “corporate social responsibility” was coined in 1953 by American economist Howard Bowen.

The concept of responsible business was talked about more and more in the 1960s and 70s, but it was in the 1980s that it really started kicking in. Businesses were becoming increasingly less regulated, so there was a sense that they should be making at least some effort to “give back” to society in return.

In the 1990s, things went up another notch. Environmental issues became a hot topic for consumers. Globalisation set in. Organisations started looking beyond their own front door at their impact in the wider world. CSR really hit its stride as a way to put “good deeds” into business practice – via charity initiatives, fundraising, volunteering and impact reporting.

Then came the 21st century. And CSR started hitting troubled waters.


Corporate Social Irresponsibility

By this point, the term “CSR” had been around for half a century. Over that time, businesses had embedded the concept in wildly different ways. While some defined CSR as building a responsible practice at every level of an organisation, for others, it was an end of year report and nothing more.

Meanwhile, there were organisations behaving badly and still merrily claiming awards for social and environmental responsibility (hello Volkwagen), rendering CSR accolades all but meaningless. Oh, so you do CSR well, do you? So what?

CSR had been so full of hope and promise. But it got used too many times as a hollow PR exercise or, worse, a smokescreen for dubious activities. It had turned into the emperor’s new actually-made-in-a-sweatshop clothes.

Even carried out with good intentions, CSR was frequently limited to a bit of charity-of-the-month fundraising to pop in a stakeholder report – a nice bit of team-building, but not much lasting social impact to show for it.

A socially responsible revolution

As the 21st century dawned – and the world seemed to be in an increasing amount of danger each year – people began to realise that creating a truly socially responsible business landscape was going to require a more dramatic shift than previously thought.

A small but steadily growing number of businesses were using socially conscious thinking as a foundation for business decision-making, and having a much bigger impact as a result.

These organisations were using their existing resources and expertise to help their local communities and beyond. They were making smart, strategic decisions about how to have a positive impact in the world. And they were involving employees from across their organisations – not just Bob in the comms team.

At the same time local authorities were beginning to think about, and take action to ensure the products and services they were purchasing had a positive impact on their residents, particularly those living in their deprived or marginalised communities.

The idea of developing this approach as a new kind of best practice started to emerge.

It didn’t take long for the declarations of “CSR is dead” to follow.

Who said it first? We’d love to know. It’s a phrase that has since been cited in endless articles and presentations like here and here and here.

And, around 2013, we adopted it and started to use it as our strapline at CHY. Because it really, really spoke to us.

It pledges our allegiance to a movement that asks for something better.

A movement that propels us far beyond the “fluffy” image of do-gooders to a place where social responsibility is considered an essential part of business design. A core component that drives strategy and success in the same way that other vital corporate functions do.

For all businesses. Not just those that can be bothered.

CSR is dead – in 2024?

Having worn this badge with pride for the last 10+ years, has anything really changed?

Looking back, we can see that progress has been… well, a bit slower than everyone might have liked.

The UK is seen as a global leader when it comes to social value. Our government has made a considered effort to mandate responsible procurement practices within the public sector, bringing in the Social Value Act in 2012 followed by the PPN 06/20 update in 2020. The knock-on effect on the private sector has been significant.

And of course businesses increasingly recognise that they need to be seen as sustainable and responsible by their customers, partners, investors and staff. The sheer number of sustainability-related panels at every single business conference will attest to that.

So, yes, I think we can safely say everyone is well aware they need to try a bit harder. But do they always know how to do it effectively? Well… that’s the bit we need to work on. And let’s be honest, we might consider ourselves a progressive country in the UK but in certain industries we’ve got more dinosaurs than Jurassic Park. So there’s definitely a lot to be done.

Is “CSR Is Dead” still relevant today?

At the moment, we think it is.

There are so many companies out there that still think a coffee morning will do it. Many more who believe social value is just a box to be ticked. And there are so many more teams to convince, to educate – some of whom have the skills already and just need a hand measuring or communicating their good work.

So, yes, we think it’s worth differentiating ourselves and those who are genuinely trying to make a difference from the  hoop-jumping, box-ticking, lip-service brigade.

If the term “CSR” can be a helpful cipher for what we don’t want to be, so we can make space for something better?

Well, that still works for us.

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