The weigh in. CSR, CR, Shared Values. I have lost track of the number of times I have rallied; a dozen times perhaps on my own blog and as many more when you include the comments I have left on the blogs of others.
I have always maintained that the ‘S’ matters; and not because I associate the ‘S’ with philanthropy and doing ‘S’ocial good, although these aspects of corporate business are important. The reason for my strong attachment to the 'S' is because of the importance of acknowledging the social impact or the social consequences of business decisions: how people are impacted - the company’s employees, the people in the community as well as the people throughout the supply chain. And while this should matter with or without the 'S', keeping the 'S' serves as an internal and external reminder that it does matter.
The social impact of a business’s actions is already integrated into the GRI reporting guidelines. One category where social impact is apparent is under Product Responsibility, marketing communications. The following excerpt asks companies to describe:
This summer, in North America, a commercial has been airing on television to promote the consumption of bottled water. The commercial, also posted on YouTube, is a good illustration of this MNE choosing to ignore the social impact of its marketing communications. The commercial is set on the sidelines of a sports field. A team of young girls has just left the field and as they are being handed bottles of sports drinks the coach says, “Drink up; you’re losing a lot of water out there”. To which one girl asks, “If we are losing water then why don’t we just drink water?” At this point the Coach takes back the colourful bottles and replaces them with bottles of the company’s plain water.
What’s not right about this picture? First of all, the information; it's untrue. And for this reason the company has lost sight of its responsibility as a corporate citizen to market truthfully and has decidedly shifted from ethical to unethical behaviour. By imparting the wrong information, correct and appropriate behaviours can be adversely influenced. When we perspire on the sports field, or elsewhere, we do not lose water; we lose electrolytes, a delicate balance of sugar, salt and water. Disrupting the electrolyte balance in our bodies can be dangerous; ask anyone who has been hospitalized for dehydration. In developing country environments, dehydration is responsible for 2.2 million child deaths every year. The reason for imbibing sports drinks during and after playing on the sports field is evidence-based. To say otherwise is wrong and irresponsible.
Showing a flagrant disregard for science and the intelligence of its market, this MNE has lost sight of the 'S' in CSR. Even if social responsibility has been incorporated into this company’s lexicon, it clearly has not been integrated into its behaviour. Actions are very convincing.
And what about the television network? By agreeing to broadcast the commercial, isn't it also culpable? Everyone is looking up and down the supply chain for responsible behaviour. In my opinion, the broadcast media should also be held accountable. Increasingly, are we not being judged by the company we keep? Society has come to expect more.
This same MNE is the subject of another post of mine where I take aim at its reputation in developing countries over the marketing of breast milk substitutes. I also question the acceptance of Board invitations made to two of its current directors earlier this year; John Elkington, a pioneer in the field of sustainability and Ann Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director 2005-2010, who upon accepting her appointment to the Board acknowledged the company’s continued marketing violations. I do believe it is possible for both individuals to influence corporate change, but right now there is little evidence of it occurring.
Full disclosure: I do not work for a sports drink company. Whether you do or you don't, you are always welcome to plant your views.
photo credit: Squared Circle Weighing Scale by Zen 2005 via flickr