What’s changed in CSR in the 20 and more years since communications and business people first found the terminology included in their common vocabulary and daily work? Looking back I remember when in the 1990s “having CSR” was on one of the most talked about issues of the day and a theme of virtually every communications industry conference. We all liked to talk about it. Many companies appointed people to be “the CSR person.” But did we really do anything about it? And what has changed since then? Making CSR part of board-room decision making still seems to be on the “To Do” list. So maybe we haven’t travelled so far?
Back in the early 1990s it became vogue for big corporations to set up CSR functions as part of their PR activities thinking that a splash of community whitewash and environmental greenwash could distract the attention of their critics. Initially most thought it was “just PR” and then some bought into “Triple Bottom Line” thinking that there was real business value in being socially responsible. At the time I led corporate affairs for McDonald’s in the UK and we faced attacks on multiple issues including animal welfare, environmental sustainability, supply chain and employment.
When McDonald’s started in 1955 its founder Ray Kroc soon appointed Al Golin as his first adviser. Al told Ray “if you don’t earn trust today you will lose your business tomorrow”. The key word here was “earn”. Trust is something which has to be earned. It cannot be bought or borrowed. This understanding sits at the core of everything McDonald’s has done since, and in the 1990s it was a reminder to us that we had to “walk the talk.” If we proudly quoted principles like this from our corporate heritage then we had to live up to them every day. This was why we carried out our first CSR audit and went on to publish the first UK, European and then global CSR reports.
When in the 1990s we revisited these challenges we did so carefully and slowly. Not least because of inhibiting legal actions taking place in the background throughout this time. In the UK in 1994 and then across Europe in 2001 we started to address these issues by asking the simple question “are we being socially responsible” in our policies and practices. We implemented independent audits, built alliances with respected third party organisations, engaged directly with our critics and set up “Stakeholder Forums” which brought together McDonald’s leadership with representatives of NGOs, pressure groups, trade unions, politics, media, academia and not least – customers. With thorough audit and forthright debate we identified priorities for change which resulted in new wage rates, enhanced employee representation, new animal welfare and sourcing policies, sustainability commitments, new restaurant designs and numerous other innovative changes.
The changes which started in the 1990s have been built on by McDonald’s since with many more initiatives. Notably in each case, whether it was championing statutory minimum wage and first job training, sourcing GM free foods, auditing toy production, buying only free range eggs or fuelling trucks using recycled cooking oils from the restaurants changes were only communicated after they had been completed, tried, tested and monitored. Advertising and PR came at the end of the story and not the beginning. The point was to live up to the promise that CSR is not something you “have” it is something you “are”.
Now working with my colleagues at Burson-Marsteller we have taken this approach to the heart of our work with clients in diverse market sectors and geographic regions through our Power of Purpose research. But nearly twenty years on I hear the same debates in companies on policies and practices as to what is legal, expected and right, and yet I believe that the most successful and sustainable businesses in this century will be those who are not only good at fixing what is wrong but those who get it right in the first place. CSR should not be first-aid, risk management or damage limitation. It should be a fundamental element in defining a strong corporate purpose.