To Build a Culture of Social Responsibility, We Need to Reboot CSR. Just Ask Unilever.

Critics of CSR have long argued it’s all about show. Showing that you are extrinsically socially responsible whilst not necessarily being intrinsically accountable for it. What I mean by this is that CSR is rarely a key strategic pillar of business development or operations. The positive values, beliefs and behaviours that CSR programmes espouse aren’t usually adopted across a business. CSR doesn’t often define the authentic culture of an organisation. But times have changed. We don’t just hope that organisations should be socially responsible, we now expect them to be. Being responsible is a value, not a function. An organisation can’t have a cuddly CSR programme showing how caring and supportive it is and then exploit its people or conceal its supply chains or overcharge its customers or scam its taxes. Values are values, beliefs and beliefs, they don’t only apply in certain circumstances, within certain departments. They need to be at the beating heart of the organisation’s culture and brand. If they aren’t, then CSR is, as it has been for many organisations for many years, just an exercise in making organisations appear more responsible and feel less guilty. CSR is not just out of fashion right now, it’s also laden with the cynical baggage of the past and needs a total rethink. Social responsibility is a belief/value/behaviour that every organisation must have, that every one of us should have. We don’t need a department or a programme to organise or promote a single shared value. This value should exist in everything the organisation does, it should be a cornerstone of organisational culture. Ownership of the idea of social responsibility (as an organisational value) needs to change too. Social responsibility / sustainability programmes are a cultural activation of the values and behaviours of the brand and should be part of the strategic remit of the Head of Brand/Marcomms but every ‘Head of’ across the business. They should drive all business and brand decision-making.

This ‘what do we do about CSR’ debate goes right to the heart of what it means to be a socially responsible business and what that really means for the culture of an organisation. Unilever’s actions of the past few years in disbanding its CSR programme and bringing the whole thing into the strategic heart of the business is a great example of how CSR can be completely redefined in such a way as to underpin a new cultural strategy and drive a business forward.

We are all defined by our actions which stem from our values. If the actions of an organisation don’t match up with its values then it shows there is a lack of integrity in the organisation. If you don’t have integrity in your business then in this day and age you will suffer the consequences. Culture = brand, brand = culture. Unilever’s acquisition and careful management of the Ben & Jerry’s brand and culture is another example that showed that they got this essential point. Unilever knows that organisations are going to be held more and more accountable by consumers – fuelled by globalisation, the visibility of supply chains, the power of social media and a questioning millennial generation. By shifting the values that have underpinned its CSR into the heart of its business strategy, Unilever has moved social responsibility centre stage and is stating that it will be driven by these values and purpose – it will act as a business that has integrity. It’s a big deal because it implies that Unilever will not place its shareholders above its people or its societal responsibilities.

So, are Unilever delivering? Let’s hope so. As one of the world’s largest consumer brands with a $53bn turnover, the potential of this action is huge. If Unilever can achieve at this scale what companies such as the Coop, which has hard-baked Fairtrade into its operations for 20 years, or Patagonia, with its unwavering environmental focus since its launch in the early 70s, have been doing for decades then it could have hugely positive consequences for the people it employs, the suppliers it works with and the societies it operates in.

There is boldness here especially at the level Unilever operate at – many other businesses I meet are daunted by the prospect. But the time is now. Be part of the movement towards creating purposeful, values driven organisational cultures that focus on the development of people and society. Profit will follow as a consequence of your actions. If you fear to tread then other more passionate and socially responsible businesses will simply attract the employees, customers and market share that you will inevitably lose.

Roland consults, coaches and writes about organisational culture, leadership and innovation. If you enjoyed this, please share it and follow me on linkedin.

Image: Original (with my amends)

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