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For better or for worse, cynicism has long been seen as ‘the British way’. In the modern world of inexhaustible internet access, social media sharing in abundance, and the constant pings of our devices, notifying us of second-by-second news updates, the UK and the wider world looks set to become only more cynical; if ‘no news is good news’ the world is having to digest more ‘bad news’ than at any other time in history. This constant onslaught of information is, in some ways, a positive development. With so much information at our fingertips, consumers are able to make informed decisions about where hard-earned money is spent like never before. At the same time, the claims of corporations must be infallible as they are often liable to meticulous fact-checking. But what does this increasingly cynical and highly informed world mean for CSR? How can corporations ensure their CSR strategies are winning over the sceptics, and are water-tight when under scrutiny?
First, let’s look at some of the reasons for this cynicism. The reality is the public has every right to be sceptical; for years the notion of CSR has been exploited by irresponsible corporations as a tool to maximise profit, whilst failing to uphold their claims. As a notable illustration of this, in the 1980s, the multinational energy corporation, Chevron, spent millions on an ad campaign presenting themselves as an environmentally friendly company, whilst simultaneously violating both the USA’s federal Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in their business practices. The adverts have since become notorious as an archetypal example of ‘greenwashing’ – the term by which the practice of boasting environmentally responsible credentials, whilst in reality not only failing to live up to, but actively contradicting these claims, became to be known. By the close of the 1990s, as claims similar to Chevron’s were increasingly exposed to be simply untrue, and concerns surrounding environmental and social responsibility were heightened, the term ‘greenwashing’ entered into the Oxford English Dictionary and the mainstream lexicon.
The current climate and public mood can be seen as a kind of hangover, after decades of being deliberately misled by mass corporations. Of course, this has been compounded by the unlimited access to information in the modern day, meaning the public is wise to both the truth about many corporation’s CSR (or lack of) and global social and environmental issues that desperately need addressing. The problem is that the scepticism instilled by tactics such as greenwashing must be dealt with by even the most honest and socially responsible of corporations; they must win back the trust of the public, having played no part in losing that trust in the first place. The worst case scenario from this, which is thankfully yet to happen, would be corporations giving up on CSR entirely if initiatives are no longer seen as worth the time, money and energy they require to be implemented, particularly if the impression is that initiatives simply give rise to suspicion from stakeholders.
So can any positives be drawn from all this doom and gloom? The other side of the coin is that scepticism could be seen as beneficial – it encourages consumers to do their own research into where they spend their money. This puts greater pressure on corporations to back up their CSR claims with hard evidence and make that evidence readily available to the public. In this case, if a CSR strategy does come under scrutiny it can be shown to be incontrovertible. For corporations, this means looking to be accredited by independent bodies and employing means to monitor and track CSR and corporate giving; this, in turn, makes accurate reports easier to compile which can then be communicated to any curious potential customers and the wider public.
To truly convince the sceptics, CSR must be absolutely central, and at the heart of running a corporation, rather than a simple ploy to maximise profit or a distraction from a less desirable truth. CSR has been described as one of the ‘six pillars’ of a corporation’s reputation but initiatives may fail to be convincing if they are viewed to be there for reputation’s sake alone. In our modern globalised world, corporations, as well as their stakeholders, share a greater inherent responsibility to be socially responsible; CSR should be part and parcel of and in the very foundations of running any business, big or small, rather than simple window dressing. Therefore, the positives of CSR in terms of business (improved reputation and increased profits, increased motivation of employees and attracting new talent), must be seen as serendipitous overflow rather than the sole reason of CSR’s existence in the first place. What is of utmost importance is maximum transparency from corporations, clear and honest motives set out for stakeholders to see, and validated documentation of CSR in order to restore and maintain faith in CSR as a concept and as a force for good.
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