What caught my attention on this site was an article, The Birth of Corporate Social Opportunity, by Ian Morton, Founder and CEO of the Summerhill Group, a Canadian company that seems to have made great contributions to environmental progress and healthy housing in the great country to our north where I have spent many happy years. In an attempt to create a niche for his own company, Mr. Morton essays a history of CSR. He opens with mention of a 1953 book, continues with a vague reference to CSR being practiced among the ancient Greeks, then skips forward again to settle correctly on the assessment that the true origins of CSR were in the United States in the 1970s (he might have said the late 1960s, but that is a quibble). He goes on to observe the enormous recent growth of CSR and then pronounces CSR a fad and a disappointment.
Having participated actively in the origins of CSR in the 1970s, I was taken aback. Who do I believe - Mr. Morton or my own lying eyes? We have in fact come a tremendous way since the 1970s, when it was considered a deeply radical idea to ask corporations to reveal information about their social and environmental practices. The 1970s were replete with false claims about corporate environmental virtue (this propaganda is called greenwashing today but was then given names like ecopornography) that had to be exposed one by one. CSR a fad? It is so solidly entrenched in Europe that it will surely last there not just through my lifetime but that of my children. The United States is years behind Europe in its awareness of CSR issues but is catching up, and the developing world is paying close attention to CSR because Western buyers are insisting on social and environmental assurances in the growth of agricultural products, the mining of ore and the manufacture of apparel and toys.
Toys. Mr. Morton chooses a toy industry example to preface his otherwise undocumented statement that "public cynicism [about CSR] is rising" in the United States. He notes that in 2004, Mattel issued its first CSR report listing as a core value, "taking ownership of all that passes in front of us". He continues: "But it's difficult to reconcile this statement with Mattel's recent product recall... [and its] attempt to pass responsibility for mistakes to the country that manufactured their product, to their specifications. (To be fair, Mattel later apologized to China, saying that 85% of the recall was due to its own design faults.)"
If public cynicism is rising in the United States, it is because the 21st century has opened with an incredible string of revelations about corporate misconduct, from the boom and bust of the dot-coms, Enron, Global Crossing and Global Warming, and now arguably the biggest meltdown of the financial sector in American history, the subprime crisis.
On the basis of this story and the public cynicism that he perceives, Mr. Morton is ready to scrap CSR and substitute a new initiative that he calls Corporate Social Opportunity. I understand that he seeks to convey to corporate executives that CSR offers a marketing opportunity, that there are no obstacles, only opportunities. A positive approach. But his suggested name reminds me of the Pogo comic strip, whose most famous line is: "We have met the enemy and he is us," followed in the next panel by a less remembered epilog: "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity."
I submit that Mr. Morton is not the first to see opportunity in CSR and that many once-small companies have ridden social and environmental missions to growth and prosperity. I offer Mr. Morton every good wish for his success in tackling insurmountable opportunity in Canada, but I submit that if he thinks CSR is just a fad he is, on this subject, to use Rick Blaine's well-chosen word, misinformed.