In this landmark book, Wayne Visser shows how the old model of Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility (CSR) is being replaced by a 2nd generation movement. This generation goes beyond the outmoded approach of CSR as philanthropy or public relations (widely criticised as ‘greenwashing’) to a more interactive, stakeholder-driven model.
A Review of ‘The Age of Responsibility’
The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business is possibly Wayne Visser’s greatest work yet. It is deeply reflective of the state of the world, society, business and people who change our lives. It is as much an intimately personal account of Wayne’s evolving relationship with Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility as it is a guide to the way these concepts have emerged to drive practices – which have in some ways made a positive difference in the world, but failed spectacularly in other ways to harness the power of capitalism into a force for positive impact.
In many ways Wayne’s view of the state of CSR today is rather depressing. Wayne writes: “At worst, CSR in its most primitive form may be a smokescreen covering up systematically irresponsible behaviour. At best, even the most evolved CSR practices might be just a band-aid applied to a gaping wound that is haemorrhaging the lifeblood of the economy, society and the planet.” At another level, it is quite uplifting: “We are on the brink of the post-industrial revolution and we need to decide whether we will be accomplices in slowing that transition, or catalysts in speeding us towards a better future.” The core message, however, is that CSR as we know it has failed to create a demonstrable improvement in the quality of social, economic and ecological life. For CSR to succeed, it needs to transform itself into something new, CSR 2.0.
Wayne Visser’s 9th book on CSR, The Age of Responsibility, is cleverly structured walking us through the “Ages and Stages” of the CSR movement. There are five ages according to the author:
- The Age of Greed: characterized by “bigger is better” and shareholder rule in which unfettered growth is fueled by the concept that “greed is good” and that corporations who make more money (for shareholders) actually benefit society.
- The Age of Philanthropy: characterized by the concept that business should give back to society, personified by John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and categorized by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green as “philanthrocapitalism.”
- The Age of Marketing: characterized by the concept that reputation and brand matter most, leading to CSR for PR gains, with a good measure of greenwashing thrown in.
- The Age of Management: characterized by the alignment of CSR with business strategy and adoption of voluntary codes and industry standards. Embedding CSR is the name of the game.
- The Age of Responsibility: characterized by what Wayne Visser calls “CSR 2.0, or Systemic CSR, based on a new set of principles.” The Age of Responsibility has been heralded by iconic leaders such as Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, Ray Anderson of Interface and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. CSR 2.0 also makes use of the new social media era as business begins to “redefine its role in society.”
CSR 2.0 is based on five principles – creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality and circularity. Each principle is explained in turn and a host of examples are provided to ensure we understand it can be done. Vodafone’s M-PESA service for mobile-phone banking in Africa is an example of creativity. Tata’s Nano car and Wal-Mart’s conversion to organic cotton are scalable initiatives; while GSK, the pharma giant, showed responsiveness by creating a patent pool for developing drugs for neglected diseases. Glocality is about ensuring the right local solutions, such as the experience of SC Johnson in Kenya who reformulated cleaning products to adapt to local consumer conditions. Circularity takes us in the direction of cradle-to-cradle and examples can be seen from Patagonia, Nike and Timberland, as well as Tesco’s promise to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Getting to CSR 2.0 requires inspired, committed and capable people who understand their role in leading change to make the new promise of CSR 2.0 a reality. The final part of The Age of Responsibility is a lesson on change and includes a Change Matrix which plots the many change agents who have emerged to date to advance CSR and several change models that can assist our thinking as we aspire to make it happen.
Wayne Visser distils four types of CSR change agents within the community of CSR professionals: the Expert (whose motivators are projects, systems and technical excellence); the Facilitator (who shares knowledge and creates opportunities); the Catalyst (who initiates change and gives strategic direction) and the Activist (whose motivation is related to broader social and environmental issues in the world). The point is that motivation for change in business organizations comes in different forms and driving change successfully requires recognition of individual motivators and organizational context. At the heart of it all are individuals and their actions.
What is rather unique and appealing about this book is that it is not simply an erudite chronicle of the evolution of CSR together with a nicely packaged solution to all CSR’s inadequacies. The appeal is the sense you are actually working through the dilemmas and challenges at each step of the way with the author, who ultimately asks whether working in Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility is a good answer to his life’s question: Is advancing CSR truly a worthy enough cause for us to devote our energies to? Or is it a hollow shell that provides capitalism with a softer face but doesn’t make any substantive difference to the way businesses work?
From Wayne’s early beginnings as a strategy analyst with Cap Gemini, through leadership with KPMG’s Sustainability Services in South Africa and then back to academia to pursue a Ph.D., Visser has grappled with the manifestations of the ages and stages of CSR in a way that reflects his deep sense of personal responsibility to make a difference. This journey has led him to develop a vision of a new CSR, which is more holistic and “judged by its success in improvements in the overall socio-cultural, economic and ecological system.” In the forward to the book, the Age of Responsibility protagonist Jeffrey Hollender writes: “The hour may be late and the clock loudly ticking, but the story of responsible business is not over yet. There’s still room for a happy ending. And the time has come to write it for ourselves.”
We should all read this book. We are all potential change agents. We are all part of the problem and part of the solution. We are all living in World 2.0, where CSR 2.0 can become a reality. We are all likely catalysts in the Age of Responsibility.
Review by CSRwire Contributing Writer Elaine Cohen
By Wayne Visser / Published by John Wiley and Sons. ISBN: 978-0-470-68857-1
About Elaine Cohen
Elaine Cohen is a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter at Beyond Business and blogger on sustainability reporting and author of CSR for HR: A necessary business partnership to advance responsible business practices.