Sustainability, Social Responsibility And Social Media

It’s got to be more than 10 years ago that I was first exposed to sustainable hysteria. I was, at the time, working for a well-known FTSE100 constituent who – it has to be said – had a fairly good (if somewhat misguided) track record in the field of corporate philanthropy (because that’s what it was in those days).

It would have been possible to argue that a literary sponsorship did far much more for the literati than it did for reading in schools, and that the continued funding of a manufacturing plant’s brass band, long after the plant had closed down, was a refusal to let go of the past, rather than an investment in the future. That (rather churlishly) being said, the company tried, and tried to get its workforce involved and on-side.

So, as an exercise in community relations – and this was a company that operated in communities – and as part of building a cohesive internal culture, this company’s CSR programme didn’t do too badly.

But then along came the concept of ethical investing. For the first time, it seemed as if investment decisions – particularly amongst the big investors – would be made as much on ethical track record as on corporate business performance. On top of that, it was suggested that consumer purchasing decisions would be made on the back of the brand’s ethics – so either way you looked at it CSR, sustainability, corporate ethics became the things that would make the difference between success and failure.

And in no time at all, an industry had grown up around it – consultants to advice you on your CSR and your sustainable business model, and organisations that would benchmark you, so that you’d know how you’d performed. FTSE4Good, Business in the Community, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index – all time-consuming, all expensive – but all doing a very good job of selling themselves to the business community to the point where absence was more conspicuous than inclusion.

It’s just my perception – and many would argue with me – but there was something of the Emperor’s new clothes about it all – and I for one, in my next job, told the executive Committee that we would not longer take part in FTSE4Good, or the DJSI as they cost money, wasted resource and delivered no real value. I have a feeling that many communicators felt like me – not dismissive of CSR, rather dismissive of the parasitic industry that sprang up to feed on the corporate social conscience.

Of course, ethics never went away – in the same way that they’d always been there in one form or another, long before someone invented the term ‘ethical investment’ – and a set of corporate ethics is fundamental to all business success. Simply put, if you make your products out of toxic waste, employ slave labour in the manufacturing process, and test the results on children, then you WILL be found out. You don’t need a consultant to tell you that. (I hope.) Business ethics have been around since Dickens’ Christmas Carol – some companies shout about them, others choose not to. No company needs to pay an outside organisation a fortune to judge their ethics for them.

Sustainable hysteria took hold again about two and half years ago. As the icecaps melted, the last few square hectares of rainforest were cut down and (in the UK anyway) there was the threat of a) a change in government and b) legislation in terms of emissions and operating practices, so companies started on their Social, Ethical and Environmental Policies – put something in place to stave off the worst excesses of the legislators. Again, out from the woodwork came the mountebanks and the charlatans – the advisors on sustainability, ready to devise you a plan and relieve you of your budget. A budget, incidentally which hadn’t existed before and which had thus been taken from other areas of your business. A business that was probably already in decent shape.

And then came the Great Recession of 2008/09. Suddenly a lot of people – business leaders, legislators, consumers – all realised that corporate ethics are all well and good, but really, you’ve got to treat business like the grown-up that it is. On the one hand you have to trust that it will behave ethically most of the time and on the other hand, you’ve got to believe that it merits your trust. The recession demonstrated that there are more important things in life. Not that anyone forgot about emissions, recycling, energy saving – they simply stopped wasting time agonising and proselytising.

The Great Recession, however, by some strange twist of fate (and this cannot be coincidence, can it?), has been accompanied by one of the greatest social shifts of modern times – the global embracing of social media. And, as I’ve posted here before, the rise of social media has created – mostly in America, but I fear for the UK – the cyber-hippie, who believes that all people are equal under the blog, that everyone should be free to have a voice, that the very fabric of capitalism will change as the inherent contract between consumer and brand becomes a contract between consumer and brand employee, via the social medium.

This is both frightening and infectious – the idea that business as we know it will change, become more embracing of its stakeholders, accept and act upon feedback and suggestions – to the point where products and services will not be created by the companies who manufacture and supply them, but by the consumer. A Utopia where the consumer simply has to blog that they want a frozen pizza with banana and limestone, and a brand owner will make one.

The Great Recession, and the misery that’s gone with it, has made this a very attractive proposition. Everyone wants to believe that we can make a better life with what we know now and that the post-Great Recession world will be focused more on ethics and social responsibility than it will be on capitalism and the creation of profit. People-driven, rather than profit-driven.

Clever people have been suckered by this. Some, such as Robert Phillips writing in PRWeek, have been so taken in by it, that they’re actually setting the communications profession up as the next set of charlatans, mountebanks and snake-oil salesmen who will advocate this way of operation at the highest level. (Sorry, can’t link to the PRWeek article, which is a shame.)

Until the pain of the Great Recession fades, and we re-enter the ‘Good Times’ phase of the cycle.

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