CSR in controversial sectors. Corporate responsibility or just a smoke curtain?
People are not perfect. Companies are created and run by people, hence, companies are not perfect either. Let’s just accept that. As much as there can be irresponsible people there can be irresponsible companies as well.
In January I published a poll in which I asked whether companies in controversial sectors are entitled to have a strategy of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Back to my poll, 61% of the voters think that companies in controversial sectors have the right to develop their own CSR strategies. Now, would it be real CSR or just a smoke curtain? Are CSR professionals blinded by these controversial companies or should we be able to call things by their name?
Most people think that controversial companies have every right to develop CSR activities because of three reasons:
- Because that is one important way how important companies can improve and become better organisations
- Because, after all, companies are human organisations and humans are not perfect
- Because managers are free to choose whatever strategy to conduct their business
Maybe the right question should have been whether controversial companies develop CSR activities as a part of their long term strategy to become better companies, or just because they want to look better than they really are.
According to the recommendations issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments should “denormalize and, to the extent possible, regulate activities described as “socially responsible” by the tobacco industry, including but not limited to activities described as “corporate social responsibility”.
“The corporate social responsibility of the tobacco industry is an inherent contradiction, as industry’s core functions are in conflict with the goals of public health policies with respect to tobacco control.” This is just not my humble opinion, it is the opinion of the WHO. So, if activities tagged as CSR by the tobacco industry should not be called social responsibility, what are they? The answer is clear: marketing and greenwash. A smoke curtain to hide what they really are: an industry that kills thousands and thousands of people every year, most of them addicts that are not able to quit smoking. The excuse of free individuals does not work here, they are people with addiction problems.
Personally, I think there is no black or white in this issue, but varying degrees of grey (although tobacco companies are very dark grey, black I’d say). Let’s have a look at three examples from different controversial sectors. Tell me if you notice any difference.
- Diageo is a is a global alcoholic beverages company based in the UK. It has an ambitious CSR strategy and is a regular GRI-reporter. They stress on responsible drinking and state that “creating a positive role for alcohol in society is fundamental to our company purpose and the long-term viability of our business”. Why is it that they seem more credible than, say, Philip Morris? Is it because it is widely recognised that moderate alcohol consumption (wine), has a positive effect on health, whereas tobacco is completely harmful? Is it because they seem to be more transparent about their products and their ingredients? However, I would think twice, or “thrice”, before working for a liquor company.
- British Petroleum BP was a company once recognised by everybody (CSR experts included) as a champion of sustainability that wanted to go “beyond petroleum”. Until the oil spill happened… Their sustainability was not very solid after all. However, other energy companies are investing in renewable energy as a way to change their strategy and guarantee their long term strategy. Even Saudi Arabia is aware of the fact that peak oil is a-coming and is already looking for alternatives.
- Tobacco companies do not seem to have such long term strategies to replace their products. Is it because the secret of their success relies on the addictive power of their substances? Replacing tobacco by completely harmless cigarettes would take away the addiction, thus reducing consumption. They even recognise that tobacco is harmful (Philip Morris). At least Philip Morris does not mention the words “corporate social responsibility”, following the recommendations of the WHO.
- British American Tobacco (BAT) states that if a product is harmful at least do it responsibly. A harmful yet responsible product? Are they kidding us, plain cynical or just trying to pull our leg? BAT does mention the words “corporate social” in their website. They seem to be concentrating on supply chain and climate change actions but they are missing the real point: their products and their completely lethal impact on health.
What I have learnt from these examples is that, for a CSR strategy not to be called greenwashing, following conditions should be met:
- Longterm strategy to change or adapt their core business
- Continuous and verifiable efforts to reduce their impact
- Total transparency about their processes, products and impacts
Maybe this is a very subjective matter, linked to personal values and convictions. Personally, I have made a choice and stay honest and coherent: Tobacco and weapons are a total NO-GO for me. What is your choice?
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