Wayne Visser is Founder and Director of the think-tank CSR International and the author of twelve books, including nine on the role of business in society, and two poetry collections (I Am and African, and Wishing Leaves). In addition, Wayne does research and lecturing for Cambridge University, Magna Carta College Oxford, and La Trobe Graduate School of Management in Australia. Before getting his PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (Nottingham University, UK), Wayne was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Cap Gemini in South Africa. Wayne lives in London, UK, and enjoys art, writing poetry, spending time outdoors and travelling in his home continent of Africa. A full biography and much of his writing and art is on www.waynevisser.com.
Using Web 2.0 as a metaphor, Wayne Visser shows how business needs to radically transform if we are to ever reach a true Age of Responsibility. The required systemic approach is dubbed CSR 2.0 and characterised by five key principles: creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality and circularity. Using a plethora of stories and cases to illustrate ‘the good, the bad and the ugly′ of corporate sustainability and responsibility, the book describes how the new DNA of business is fast being decoded in the areas value creation, good governance, societal contribution and environmental integrity. Having set out a compelling vision of the future, The Age of Responsibility sets about describing how to get there by explaining how change happens at the societal, organizational and individual level. Readers are left not only informed, but also inspired to make a difference.
What inspired “The Age of Responsibility” book?
It was a combination of concern and inspiration – concern that, despite the tremendous growth of corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR) activities over the past 20 years, most of the world’s social, environmental and ethical problems are still getting worse, not better; and inspiration, because through my work and travels in 50 countries, I have seen many promising glimpses of what a new, creative, more effective business approach might be, which I call CSR 2.0. So I wrote the book to warn against complacency and to share exciting new best practices. Our challenges are too big and urgent to waste more time using outdated thinking, broken models and ineffective strategies. Creativity means letting go of the past and creating the future.
What have you learned in the process of setting up CSR International and delving into the CSR realm?
The biggest lesson from setting up the thinktank CSR International has been a realisation of how much momentum this movement on corporate sustainability and responsibility has gathered and how truly global it has become. In less than 2 years, we have grown to include more than 2,000 members from 95 countries, and the website gets 150,000 page hits a month. As a result, we are looking at setting up a CSR International Institute of Professionals, to recognise those who are working so tirelessly to make a positive difference through business. What excites me is both the scale and diversity of participation. It means that there are thousands, if not millions of people focusing their creative energies on solving some of the world’s most difficult problems, and sharing what they are learning along the way.
This year, we want to explore the concept of freedom, and how we can move from individual freedom to collective freedom. In this process we want to engage artists, organizations and individuals that have inspiring innovative ideas and contributions. How do you define freedom?
Freedom is the ability to make choices about my life in a way that does not harm or disrespect others. It is important that my freedom does not make others less free. As I have written in the book, if we enjoy the right to freedom, it is because we accept our responsibility not to harm or harass others. On the other hand, responsibility becomes onerous when choice is removed from the equation, when we do not realise our freedom to act differently, when we forget that we are allowed to say no.
What other concepts are required in a sustainable equation of freedom?
At the heart of a sustainable concept of freedom is reciprocity and respect. Should I be free to accumulate excessive wealth, when large portions of our society remain trapped in poverty? Should I be free to exploit nature or people in order to fuel my own acquisitive greed or consumptive lifestyle? Clearly, these are corrupt acts of freedom; freedom that acts like a cancer cell in the body. I should be free to pursue my highest and truest potential, but only if that enriches, rather than impoverishes, nature and society. My freedom should contribute to the common wealth of experiences, resources and aspirations.
How do you think your work aspires to contribute to this concept and the notion of collective freedom?
My work is about showing that a more sustainable and responsible future is something we can actively choose and work towards. We are not condemned to a world of pollution and poverty, of conflict and destruction. These are problems that we have created and that we can solve collectively. But this requires a shift in societal norms to embrace values that limit the abuse of power, that cherish life and diversity, and that realise that the long term gains of collective responsibility far outweigh any short term sacrifices required to get there. We know that the market – and its primary institution, business – do not operate in a vacuum. They will shift when we all choose to prioritise fairness and happiness over profits and material consumption.
Do you think that corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives can have an impact on collective freedom and human rights issues?
Without a doubt. Already, we have seen norms changing, as evidenced in frameworks like the UN Global Compact and the emerging work on business and human rights by Professor John Ruggie. We have seen Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) strategies and the Grameen microfinance approaches being adopted by business, spurring a wave on innovation in the provision of finance, goods and services for the poor. We have seen the improvement in labour conditions in the supply chains of many of the world’s largest companies, like Gap and Nike. And through these and many other CSR-related initiatives, the world’s collective freedom – especially the ability of the world’s poor to choose a better life – is being enhanced. On the other hand, the freedom of many of nature’s diverse and exquisite species to survive and thrive has been tragically diminished.
How can CSR be authentically implemented? What are the obstacles? How do corporations overcome them?
For CSR to be authentically implemented, companies must revisit the purpose of business. Is it to make profits, to enrich executives, and to pander to fickle shareholders or market analysts? Or is it to improve society by providing useful, safe, healthy, delightful and environmentally sustainable products and services? So long as the purpose of business is narrowly defined in terms of economics, companies will always be caught in a web of short-term self-enrichment and CSR will always be something peripheral, incremental and at odds with the company’s main drivers. The biggest obstacle to CSR, therefore, is the narrow expectations we place on business. Corporations can overcome this through bold and innovative leadership. But more importantly, we must collectively broaden and deepen our expectations of business and then apply the necessary carrots and sticks to help companies to ‘shapeshift’ their corporate purpose.
Do you have an example of a company that meaningfully contributed to freedom and social change?
There are many examples. Unilever has been very progressive on sustainability issues – helping to launch initiatives like the Marine Stewardship Council and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – and is now planning to double in size, bringing life-improving products to a billion people, while halving their environmental footprint. Nestle is working hard at creating “shared value” through improvements in water, nutrition and rural development among the communities they serve. Wal-Mart is planning to make sustainability mainstream by creating responsible products that are affordable (rather than premium priced, as they currently are), while creating zero waste and using 100% renewable energy. All of these companies and many more are creating social change while enhancing people’s ability to make choices that will improve their lives, communities and nature.
What is the current status of CSR?
Most companies tend to be stuck in one of what I have defined as four Ages and Stages of CSR: defensive CSR in the Age of Greed, charitable CSR in the Age of Philanthropy, promotional CSR in the Age of Marketing, or strategic CSR in the Age of Management. Collectively, I call these approaches CSR 1.0, because they have failed to turn around our most serious problems, or to make the net impact of business positive. However, a few companies are starting to demonstrate a more systemic CSR in the Age of Responsibility, which addresses the root causes of our problems and which I call CSR 2.0. This includes demonstrating the five principles of CSR 2.0, which I explore in the book, namely creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality (balancing global and local needs) and circularity (cradle-to-cradle production). The examples I cite are the innovators, but we need many more if we are to shift to CSR 2.0 and bring about a tipping point into the Age of Responsibility.
In the next decade, what are the trends and priorities in CSR?
We can expect to see a mainstreaming of responsible and sustainable products, largely due to choice editing by large companies or governments. Pure philanthropy will increasingly shift towards seeding and supporting social enterprises. We will see far more emphasis on measuring and judging companies’ social, environmental and ethical impacts, rather than just their activities. We can expect more collaborative approaches to solving difficult problems, especially using Web 2.0 tools like wikipreneurship and crowdsourcing. Information about the impacts of products will also become more easily and intuitively available, embedded in barcodes and accessible through smart phone technologies. In addition, we will see a far more complex governance system, with a web of regulation, voluntary codes, social compacts and unwritten norms shaping corporate behaviour.
As individuals and consumers, what role do we have in this bigger picture?
Ultimately, all change starts with individuals. We are all change agents in our own right. The challenge is to focus our efforts in ways that we can be most effective. My research suggests that there are four types of change agents: experts, facilitators, catalysts and activists. For some, their biggest impact will come through contributing specific knowledge and expertise, others will empower people (colleagues, children, friends, etc.) to make a difference; some will influence organisations, while others will exert social pressure through civil society involvement. Our buying choices will also create change, but we need to be more demanding. We should not accept having to pay more for sustainable and responsible products. We have to work for changes that will make doing the right thing the easiest and most sensible choice in the world.
How can artists, as global citizens with immense power to create communities, collaborate with corporations to bring about change and freedom?
Artists must tell the stories which reflect and shape our collective consciousness. They must penetrate the superficial veneer of fashion and materialism and peer into society’s heart and soul. Artists have the crucial task of animating – making visible and vital – our deepest concerns and our greatest hopes about business. Only through the honesty of the artist can we accurately perceive the state of our world and the performance of our companies. Are we sick? Are we corrupt? Are we fulfilled? Are we adding to the sum of life, or subtracting from it? Where is the beauty? Where are the acts of caring? The power of art is to engage us emotionally – as workers, as customers, as parents, as children, as humans. We cannot think our way out of our current crises. We have to act. And we will only act if we are motivated by strong feelings, whether they are our horror and anger over injustice and exploitation, or our passion and inspiration over the innovative possibilities for a better world. Artists can remind us that we dream the world into existence – through business and in myriad other ways – and that we have the freedom to shape our collective dreams, and thereby to create a life-affirming destiny for the planet and its people.