Walking the Line: The CSR Consultant Dilemma
Not all corporations are socially responsible, but all corporations want you to think they are. In making this statement, I don’t want to sound like too much of a cynic – I believe that business is a powerful force through which to implement social change, and often company and public goals align in a harmonious and profitable way. But as beneficial as CSR is, it is also a marketing and branding tool that may not always convey company ideals. For instance, to the average, busy shopper who doesn’t have time to scour CSR reports, seeing a reusable bag for sale may be all s/he needs to believe the company is doing great things, which is exactly what that retailer is hoping for.
Specifically, this semester I’ve been working on a CSR consulting project for which my group is analyzing carryout bag policies for a major retailer. In the past few years, consumer activism and government regulation have changed the disposable bag landscape. The reusable bag has gone from a niche environmental product to a trendy accessory, updated with the seasons and often associated with celebrities. As a result of this trend, retailers are pushing hard to promote their reusable bags as a sign of their commitment to sustainability. Some of the companies we looked at, including my client, are engaged in innovative processes. Others, however, are using a reusable bag as a tokenistic environmental initiative, as they are visible to the customer but require no radical changes.
Of course, this trend is not limited to reusable bags. I remember being appalled in high school when I read a newspaper article discussing how a certain company spent much more money advertising their disaster relief contributions than they spent on the actual disaster relief. For many companies, things haven’t really changed. This presents a specific dilemma for the CSR consultant, because sometimes the line between promoting laudable CSR initiatives and promoting initiatives verging on greenwashing is very thin. From a project perspective, there is potential for the client having more veiled objectives, making project clarification even more crucial than usual. Additionally, from an individual perspective, CSR consultants have to wrestle with the ethical dilemma of how to best promote CSR initiatives in an honest way, while still best meeting their client’s goals. When making strategy recommendations for this project, I’ve personally experienced the tension between making recommendations that will benefit the client’s CSR reputation while ensuring that the potential strategy has genuine CSR value. Similarly, my team has had to balance what we would like to see in an ideal world, versus what translates to the most good will (and potential profits) for the company. I’ve been told consultants need to be problem solvers, analytical, and team oriented; but what I’ve learned through this project is that, in CSR consulting, they also need to be able to walk the line.