CSR at a Darwinian Moment: What is the Path to Sustainability?

During my tenure as CEO of BP I was an early proponent of CSR, but I think that the idea CSRof connecting with society in this way is now dead.”  That quote stopped me in my tracks as I perused my copy of Chief Executive magazine (Browne, Nuttal & Stadlen, 2016, p. 47).  As an EHS Professional I have been watching the Sustainability movement come of age and wondering how it will take root in the increase-shareholder-wealth-at-all-costs management world we still operate in.  CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility, is the answer the business world came up with to meet the challenges of 21st Century Society’s requirement that businesses ensure prosperity for future generations.  Honestly, as I learned about how CSR works in most established organizations, I viewed it as a bit of a smoke screen to allow the organization continue on with business as usual behind the scenes while using the CSR team to superficially engage the external communities and stakeholders.  More of a brand image management tool than a strategic component, it did not seem to impact the central mission of many organizations I familiar with.  That mission did not change to meaningfully incorporate these outside interests.

So John Browne’s statement above strikes me as an accurate assessment of the future of CSR.  What surprised me is that he is making it.  You probably recall that Mr. Browne is the former CEO of British Petroleum during the drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  But, who better to truly understand the full picture than him.  He has seen all sides of industrial operations in the modern era, including environmental damage caused by his company on a scale not previously encountered.  I think his view on CSR is correct, it has been seen-through as a superficial activity that won’t yield the kind of change  regulators, NGO’s, activists and other communities are looking for.

Ceres Strat

Ceres integrated approach to sustainability. Source: Ceres.

But what are those changes?   The desire for sustainable business and living practices is far from dead.   The non-profit sustainability leadership group Ceres has put together a thoughtful and realistic strategic roadmap for sustainability that lays out not only what the expectations are but also the critical areas of action to get there.  The major areas of focus are not new.  They are: Governance, Stakeholder Engagement, Disclosure and Performance. The roadmap gives 20 key expectations in these areas and identifies actions that will meet them.  The original roadmap was published in 2010 and an update recently released in 2016 (2018 note: later reports are now out ).  I don’t have the space here to cover the 20 actions.  Follow the links to see the specifics of the roadmap.  The organization is also holding the business community accountable to progress with a biannual progress report.

So, we see that organizations like Ceres are alerting the business community of the risks of failing to change and offering clear advice on how to meet the challenge of shifting an organization from reliance on consumptive practices to the sustainable model.  The question is:  Will the business community, particularly global corporations, sincerely lean into this effort?  It’s clear that global society is not fooled by half-hearted attempts to talk the talk but not walk it.



Browne, J., Nuttal, R., & Stadlen, T.  (2016).  Radical Engagement: The Shifting Role of the CEO. Chief Executive, Number 283, July/August.

Moffat, A.  (2010).  The 21st Century Corporation: The Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability.  Ceres.  Boston, MA.

About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
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