Category Archives: Concepts

Role Reversal: When Business Safeguards the Public Good

By Erin Leitheiser.

Earlier this week Patagonia launched what may be corporate America’s most forceful action yet against the government’s assaults on the environment and vulnerable communities: announcing that it would sue the Trump administration.  Such action signals a new era for business leadership on social and sustainability issues.

No Government-as-usual and no Business-as-usual
More than a year ago – and before the 2017 U.S. election – I wrote about Trump, anti-intellectualism and the new role for business.  While the takeaway then was that business was increasingly expected to step up contributions to solving social and sustainability issues, the new reality of a Trump administration necessitates yet another re-evaluation of business’s role in society.  No longer is it simply enough for companies to contribute to the broader public good via philanthropy or (more) sustainable business practices; such approaches assume a stable and accepted regulatory environment facilitated by the government.  We now live in a time when Americans are facing a hostile government that is pushing through major changes to the tax code which would benefit the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest, rolling back protections for women to access reproductive healthcare, and reneging on the country’s commitments and obligations to do its fair share to stymy carbon emissions, among countless others.  This is not government-as-usual, so it can no longer be business-as-usual either.

A new Role of Business in Trump Times
We have seen encouraging moves by state and local governments to do what they can to work around Trump (for example, on the Paris agreement), and business is also playing a new role.  While corporate lobbying and political involvement is nothing new, what is different is that business is now engaging on a range of social and environmental issues that have little to do with their core business activities.  A few notable examples include:

Earlier this week, Patagonia’s homepage shifted from its usual backdrop of surfers and climbers to solely a black backdrop with writing in white stating:

The President Stole Your Land
In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bears Ears
and Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monuments.  This is the largest
elimination of protected land in American history.

 

Patagonia – A Frontrunner in Opposing Harmful Governmental Policy Changes
Patagonia has a long and established history of progressive action both internally and externally.  But, its new efforts signal a move from lodging disagreements to using its corporate resources to actively oppose harmful and discriminatory governmental policy changes.  While in yesteryear government was the space where protections were afforded and business need only comply with relevant regulations, we are now in an era where business must step up to defend the greater good.

Hats off to you, Patagonia.  Corporate America, please take note and know that people everywhere are looking to you to use your power and resources to defend and advance the public good.  Now is your time.


Erin Leitheiser is a PhD Fellow in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at Copenhagen Business School.  Her research interests revolve around the changing role and expectations of business in society.  Prior to pursuing her PhD she worked as a CSR manager in a U.S. Fortune-50 company, as well as a public policy consultant with a focus on convening and facilitating of multi-stakeholder initiatives.  She is supported by the Velux Foundation and is on Twitter @erinleit

Pic by Erin Leitheiser, taken from Patagonia’s homepage Tuesday 5th 2017.

Need an SDG Solution? Hack it.

By Lara Anne Hale.

November 16 – 18, 2017 marked the beginning of a student-driven innovation era at Copenhagen Business School. The Student Innovation House – in collaboration with Oikos and PRME – hosted their first major event, the Sustainable Campus Hackathon 2017.

A Hackathon for more campus sustainability
Having received an impressive 120 applications to participate in the event, 66 students from universities across Denmark were invited to join an intensive 2.5-day spree of hacking sustainability ideas in four UN Sustainable Development Goal areas: Green Infrastructure, Healthy and Sustainable Food, Diversity and Inclusion, and Human Well Being and Mental Health. The goal? To come up with an idea that is feasible, implementable, scalable, and imparting a big impact; and the winning proposal will be further developed and implemented on the CBS campus next year.

Not all SDGs are created equally
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the first challenges was that not all SDGs are created equally, at least not in terms of student interest. Fully half of the students formed groups competing in the Healthy and Sustainable Food area, leaving Human Well Being and Green Infrastructure perfectly fitted with teams, but Diversity and Inclusion completely empty. I can’t help but wonder what this says about what is being integrated into students’ curriculum, especially in regards to sustainable development. Many students, during our “speed dating” for forming teams, remarked to me that they had recently had some courses relating to food systems and circular economy, and that this inspired them to innovate in this arena. Are we not giving gender equality the sustainability context – or even the examples of success and impact – that attract students to think critically and generate solutions for the future? Perhaps this in part is a reflection of Denmark’s rapid slide down the rankings.

Hacking the SDGs – with dedication, creativity & open minds
But by and by, teams drew from a hat, and we were sorted out. The next 36 hours involved input from experts, brainstorming, drafting, brainstorming again, and ultimately “hacking” the SDGs. My group’s subject area was Human Well Being and Mental Health, and my teammates hailed from Danish Technical University and Roskilde University. Their approach to the task was impressive: on the one hand they were hard-working and dedicated; and on the other hand they were playful with ideas and throwing around true creativity. It didn’t seem to bother them that the winning proposal would not directly, or at least immediately affect their universities. Rather, they were there to work on inspiration, on their own knowledge, and on collaboration. Beyond opening minds within teams, individuals across teams chatted over breaks, and mentors circled around, getting to know the breadth of people and ideas represented.

A playful approach to raise awareness around gender (in)equality
The hackathon was set up so that teams first presented for four minutes in a “heat”, and then were judged if they would be one of four teams proceeding to the finals. Notably, one of my favourite presentations was within the Diversity and Inclusion category. The team proposed circulating a quiz concerning “How much will you earn after your degree?” Respondents would enter their degree programs, age, experience, and so forth, and then be presented with their expected monthly wages. But then a pop-up would ask the user’s gender. If the response was male, the quiz would say “Sorry! We were mistaken. You will actually earn more than those who are not male!” and if the response was female, “Sorry! You will actually earn less than that, and less than your male counterparts.” This quiz idea is indeed a clever way to promote critical awareness, and hopefully more discussions concerning gender equality on campus (especially at CBS, where more than 80% of full professors are male).

And the winner is… Everyone!
Ultimately, the winners of the hackathon were Team Supo, who propose a student card-linked electronic point system for registering and incentivising sustainability actions, such as choosing to cycle to campus. Team Supo will be sent on a trip to New York, where they will expand upon their idea to the head office of PRME. Indeed I look forward to the implementation of their idea, but truth be told, the brilliance of a hackathon is the way it cracks open so many ideas, and brings together so many people. Supo will not be the only reason I’ll be back at Student Innovation House, as there are many more hacks – formal or informal – yet to come.


Lara Anne Hale is a former PhD student at Copenhagen Business School’s Governing Responsible Business World Class Research Environment. Her PhD focused on Experimental Standards in Sustainable Building as part of the EU Innovation for Sustainability project with VELUX. Follow her on Twitter.

Pic by Aafke Diepeveen, edited by BOS.

Where is the Space for Ethics in Rule Governed Organizations?

By Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic.

Imagine that you work in an organization where your choices, your knowledge and your thoroughness in your work could potentially impact the lives and health of people; for the better, yes, but also for the worse, if you make a mistake. Imagine then, that at any moment, someone could come and go through all your work, ask for all the details of your choices and demand proof that you made the right decision according to all the rules that you need to know. And then imagine that large investments are at stake and that the failure or success of these investments depend, partly, on the thoroughness of your work.

Strict rules and procedures
This is the reality that many employees in pharmaceutical companies operate in. Many organizations today are governed by policies and procedures to make things run smoothly but some organizations are – to a larger extent – characterized by strict monitoring and reporting procedures, high preoccupation with failure and commitment to organizational resilience. Weick and Sutcliffe name such organizations “High Reliability Organizations” (HRO) (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). HROs are organizations working in fields where mistakes can have severe consequences and which, as a result of this, have strict procedures for ensuring compliance with processes and policies.

Studying HROs, scholars have focused on organizations such as air craft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), nuclear power plants (Schulman, 1993), hospitals (Chassin & Loeb, 2013) and military units (Bierly & Spender, 1995; Demchak, 1996); all of which operate in environments rich with potential for error but where the consequences of such are too severe to allow them to happen (Cf. Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999, p. 32).

With their close attention to monitoring, following procedures and regimes for registering data, actions and decisions, pharmaceutical companies can be defined as HROs.

Is following the rules enough?
Organizations preoccupied with reliability may spend more time and effort organizing for controlled information processing, mindful attention and action than other organizations. Weick and Roberts call this “mindful organizing” (Weick & Roberts, 1993, p. 357). But with such elaborate legislative frameworks in place as in the pharmaceutical industry, how do employees experience their room for maneuvering and for acting ethically? And how do staff and managers perceive the ethical dilemmas they meet? Is it enough to have followed the rules? And what happens in situations when there is a wider space for interpretation of such rules? How does moral reasoning take place at the intersection between legislative frameworks, financial considerations, scientific possibilities and human lives? And what domain outweighs the others at which points in time?

These are the questions that I hope to answer by studying within – and in partnership with – a pharmaceutical company. The project only started in January, so if you are interested in the answers to this, be patient, and stay tuned!


Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic is a PhD student at the Department for Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. She is working on business ethics within a multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

Pic by G. Crescoli, Unsplash.

 

Adventures in Materiality. Notes from the first CBS Sustainability Seminar

By Steen Vallentin.

  • On October 31, 2017 the new CSB Sustainability seminar series was launched
  • With a room full of practitioners and academics, the topic “Materiality and Quantification” in CSR and sustainability reporting was discussed
  • Diverse input for discussions were given by presentations by CBS, DTU and a practitioner in corporate sustainability reporting

Approximate reading time: 4-5 minutes

All we need is Materiality?
Materiality is arguably gaining significance in corporate approaches to CSR and sustainability. While strong narratives remain important, they do not suffice in a world filled with increasing amounts of data calling for transparency and factual assessment of corporate accomplishments, progress or decline. There can, however, be a price to pay for an increasing reliance on metrics and measurements. What happens to ethical and moral concerns, to fundamental values and the sense of overall purpose if CSR/sustainability is reduced to a technical matter of taking numbers and ticking boxes? This was the topic of the first in a new series of CBS Sustainability Seminars. Here is some background on the topic and the seminar series, plus some notes on the presentations of the day.

The rise of materiality in CSR and sustainability
Sustainability reporting and efforts to assess the materiality of corporate responsibilities toward the people and the planet are undergoing interesting transformations these years. Not only is sustainability reporting becoming a more and more widespread practice internationally, due to mandatory disclosure requirements and the institutionalization of standardized reporting formats such as GRI and integrated reporting. We are also, among other developments, witnessing corporate efforts to integrate adherence to the UN Sustainable Development Goals into non-financial reporting formats, including materiality assessment, and companies committed to set and communicate science based emission reduction targets (see Science Based Targets).

The new cbsCSR sustainability seminar series: research-based & multidisciplinary
Hence, “Materiality and Quantification” was an obvious choice as topic for the first event in the new series of CBS Sustainability seminars that will be taking place from the Fall of 2017 and onwards. The inaugural seminar took place on October 31 and featured three speakers: Professor Andreas Rasche from CBS, Frances Iris Lu (CBS and Maersk) and associate professor Niki Bey from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

The purpose of the seminar series is to forge closer ties between researchers at CBS and professionals from companies and organizations – to enable collaboration and easier access to each other’s knowledge and resources on an ongoing basis. And to build stronger relations among researchers at CBS. The USP of the network is that it is research-based and multi-disciplinary. One aim is to help bridge divides between knowledge silos and facilitate dialogue between different knowledge disciplines. Another aim is to broaden the scope of how we think and speak about sustainability, and to explore how far we can take this concept – in different  indicated by its three pillars: environmental, economic, social. To this end, the seminar series will present many speakers from CBS and other research environments that would not ordinarily see their research as part of a sustainability agenda.

Materiality assessments are no moral assessments
In the first seminar, however, we were on familiar ground with regard to sustainability. Based on a forthcoming research paper (using data from the Netherlands and co-authored with Koen van Bommel and André Spicer), Andreas Rasche showed how sustainability reporting has gradually developed into being a more and more standardized and technical practice. A key concept in this research is commensuration, which refers to the process of transforming different qualities into a common metric. It reduces and simplifies ‘thick’ information into metrics that are comparable to other metrics. Over time, commensuration stimulates a standardization of the meaning of sustainability. When something is turned into a metric and standardized, it often leads to a crowding out of moral questions and concerns. Subsequently, sustainability reporting can be a driver of ‘amoralization’ processes by which questions of morality, values and purpose are replaced by technical performance measures. On the one hand, this technical and instrumental turn can be part of the explanation for why sustainability reporting has become so popular (because it sidelines ambivalence and difficult moral quandaries). This need not be an entirely negative outcome, as pointed out by a participant, because it can be an indicator of increasing business integration of sustainability. We do, however, on the other hand, need to be aware of the possible downsides of this proposed ‘technicalization of sustainability’.

Moving beyond ethical idealism – the price to pay for conquering the mainstream?
While this finding is based on a longitudinal empirical study, I have made a similar point in a conceptual paper reflecting on the effects of instrumentalization in the realm of CSR more broadly. To quote myself (at length):

“As a result [of instrumentalization], it is now all too easy to speak of CSR without making any mention of ‘ethics’ or bringing up moral issues or dilemmas; a development that can lead to a strangely depersonalized understanding of responsibility and which raises questions about the relevance of ethics for CSR altogether. Whether this is a problem or not is of course debatable. On the one hand, it can be considered as a sign of progress in the sense that the CSR debate (and CSR as corporate practice) has decidedly moved beyond ethical idealism and the subjectivity/arbitrariness that may be associated with individual values and choices. CSR has developed into a socially embedded, highly institutionalized and material phenomenon. On the other, it is worth pondering what, if anything, has been lost on the path to (apparent) victory in the public realm of ideas. Is the displacement of ‘ethics’ a sign that the responsibility discourse has lost its normative bearings and that this has been the price to pay for conquering the mainstream?”

A practitioner’s perspective on values & materiality: We can have it all – (can we?)
Frances Iris Lu gave a presentation of the evolution of materiality and materiality assessments in recent years, drawing on her experience from KPMG and Mærsk. She showed how materiality assessments can often, in practice, be rather loose exercises bereft of analytical rigor, but also how it is possible to add more rigor to the process. One key feature (and possible limitation) of a conventional materiality assessment is that it tends to focus strongly on the risk as opposed to the opportunity side of responsibility, making it difficult to reconcile with policies aiming to create (shared) value.

To bridge this gap, and to make room for the company values in the account of materiality, Mærsk has created a new ‘materiality beyond the matrix’ model. Frances presented this new and more comprehensive and multi-faceted model which accounts for materiality under the three headings: Risk, Shared Value, and Responsibility. Challenging the amoralization narrative presented by Andreas, Frances argued that we are seeing a sort of pendulum swing taking place in sustainability right now where values and purpose are getting more attention – alongside the continued focus on metrics.

Materiality and Quantification in practice: The Life Cycle Assessment Lens
Finally, Niki Bey brought the quantification of sustainability through Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) into the discussion. LCA is used as a general framework to avoid the problem of cost shifting across impact categories (e.g. using less plastic might ultimately increase food waste). Although the LCA is never completely objective, we need to try to approach matters of sustainability systematically and to focus on available facts – how far can we get in terms of what we know and what we can measure, instead of focusing on subjective criteria.

A participant mentioned enthusiastically that the LCA is the most important decision-tool she has ever worked with because it makes people able to move up and down in perspective and allow them to see the bigger picture in regard to sustainability and corporate responsibilities. While LCA is usually applied as a relative measure that can be used to compare and choose between different courses of action, it can also be applied in an absolute fashion, as with the Planetary Boundaries.

Overall, the seminar brought out as many questions as it did answers. We look forward to continuing this and other adventurous discussions in future CBS Sustainability seminars.


Steen Vallentin is Director of the CBS Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (cbsCSR) and Associate Professor in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School.

Pic by Miguel A. Amutio, edited by BOS.

The Sustainable Development Goals: Elite Pluralism, not Democratic Governance

By Daniel Esser.

  • Was the process leading up to the SDGs really an exercise in global democratic policy making?
  • Although broad consultation efforts shaped the process, these alone were not able to alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid.
  • In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors and civil society organisations were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

The MDGs: An exercise in top-down development planning
Almost twenty years ago, a small group of white men sat together and dreamed up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Soon after, the United Nations (UN) deployed them as carrot and stick to halve extreme poverty and hunger, reduce infant mortality, and put all girls and boys into primary education, all by 2015. There was real confidence that the MDGs’ top-down programming would eventually reach the farthest and most destitute corners of the globe, and that national as well as global resources would finally be spent on well-coordinated and effective projects. Listening to UN technocrats pontificate about the MDGs’ indispensability, one could have almost believed that old-fashioned development planning had finally been put on the right tracks. By the end of the exercise, thousands of new jobs in the international development industry had been created, yet most of the goals had been missed. The MDGs had begotten a hyperactive global network of goodwill ambassadors, faithful implementers and intrepid evaluators staff while billions in the global South continued to suffer.

The SDGs: Consultations as the end of procedural elitism?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were supposed to end the MDGs’ dual legacy of procedural elitism and edentulism. Framed by the UN as the world’s foremost post-2015 development agenda, the new goals were designed to be more comprehensive in both scope and impact. Crucially, the UN also launched considerable efforts to incorporate voices from outside of the UN system. Thematic consultations took place around eleven areas selected by the UN Development Group (UNDG). They were complemented by web consultations, national consultations in 88 countries, and global high-level meetings. In addition, the UN created two websites to allow for direct consultation by inviting users to submit proposals and vote for challenges they considered most pressing. Moreover, a UN-sponsored civil society organization (CSO), ‘Beyond 2015’, brought together another 1,000 CSOs participating in national consultations.

Global democratic policy making – high aspirations, sobering facts
Undeniably, these efforts marked a clear departure from the MDGs’ backroom fecundation. But have they been sufficient to justify senior UN staffers’ praise of the SDGs as an exercise in global democratic policy making? Broad consultation alone does not alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid. Instead, it creates a thin layer of legitimacy that fades away as soon as accountability in invoked. The process leading up to the SDGs was rooted in an assumption that a goal-based framework was the only viable option; alternatives to such goals were never considered publicly. Countries were selected by UNDG and UN Resident Coordinators, and the breadth and depth of national consultations varied starkly. And although UNDG’s final report listed crowd-sourced issue rankings, it did not provide any rationale for excluding issues from subsequent high-level negotiations.

Closed doors, revisited
In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors. CSOs were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs. When push came to shove, the UN leadership thus followed its half-century-old practice of elitist international governance. Even though the UN leadership has been relentless in praising the virtues of accountability for post-2015 development cooperation, it has so far shied away from institutionalizing accountability in a way that would really make a difference: between the UN system and its powerful national agenda setters on one side, and CSOs, taxpayers, and intended beneficiaries on the other. If the SDGs demonstrate anything, it is that the UN remain unlikely to usher genuine global democratic governance into being.


Daniel E. Esser is Associate Professor of International Development at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. His research on local governance amid violence, organizational management, and global health politics is widely cited. A former staff member of the United Nations in New York and Bangkok, he follows the organization’s continuous struggle to make a difference in the world from a safe academic distance. He can be reached at esser@american.edu.

Pic by UN Ukraine, edited by BOS.

Corporate Criminal Liability in Germany – An Idea Whose Time Has Come

By Andreas Rasche.

Siemens, Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank … and now Airbus. What is wrong with German companies? It seems that German firms are disproportionally exposed to corporate irresponsibility. Of course, this is more of a subjective assessment than a statistical fact, and to be fair Airbus SE is a European company. Corporate irresponsibility appears in all jurisdictions, for all sorts of companies, and for a number of different reasons. My argument here is that Germany still has a legal infrastructure that makes prosecution of corporate criminal acts more difficult than in other countries.

It may come as a surprise, but Germany has, so far, not enacted an explicit corporate criminal law. While other countries have passed strict legislation to fight corporate criminality (e.g., the FCPA in the US or also the UK Bribery Act 2010), German legislation stands out in a number of ways. Unlike in other countries, you need to overcome a number of hurdles to sue corporations directly for criminal conduct. Existing legal provisions regarding corporate criminal liability are mostly found in §30 of the German Ordungswidrigkeitengesetz (OWiG). This law stipulates that corporations can be held legally accountable if someone representing the company has committed a criminal offense.

The Current Legal Situation in Germany
This legal framework puts Germany in a special role, as many other (developed) nations do not require prosecutors to prove individual guilt. As we know from CSR-related studies, corporate misconduct is usually diffused in organizations and it is often difficult to single out individuals as drivers of misconduct. Even if individuals can be singled out, it is still necessary to prove – beyond doubt – that this person was responsible for the criminal conduct on behalf of the corporation. The discussions around who was responsible for Volkswagen’s Dieselgate are a case in point. This leads to an interesting situation: While a rather high number of corporate crimes come to the attention of German public prosecutors (around 63.000 cases in 2014), few of these cases go to court, and in even fewer cases legal fines are imposed. The reason for this situation is mostly related to the fact that public prosecutors need to prove individual guilt rather than corporate guilt.

Of course, German companies are aware of the legal situation and this provides negative incentives. The current legal infrastructure may not directly motivate misconduct, but it is likely that it favors ‘lax behavior’ and unreflective actions.

Enact a Corporate Criminal Code
My plea here is simple: Germany has to enact and enforce an explicit corporate criminal code as soon as possible. The current legal instrument – the OWiG – is neither timely nor sufficient to fight corporate crimes like corruption. Actually, looking into the legal provisions reminds me a little of Milton Friedman’s famous saying that only individual actors – i.e. people with flesh and blood or ‘natural persons’ in legal lingo – can have responsibilities, and that corporate actors cannot have responsibilities because they are just a collection of individuals. We know that such an argumentation only works in the ideal world of economists (and even there its explanatory power is very limited). Any organization theorist would agree that corporations are collective actors; they possess shared norms, values and belief systems and hence there is agency beyond the individual. This is why we cannot and should not make the identification of individual guilt a precondition for corporate criminal liability.

In 2013, Thomas Kutschaty, then Minister of Justice of North Rhine Westphalia, presented a first draft for a German corporate criminal code (the so-called Verbandsstrafgesetzbuch). Ever since not much, if anything, has happened. The defense line of hardnosed corporate lobbyists is clear: under German law criminal liability is related to a fault on the side of the offender (the so-called Schuldprinzip) and hence fault cannot exist for a corporate entity itself, at least not as long as individual misconduct under the name of the company is proven. It is time to rethink the basic condition underlying such an argumentation: the legal principle and ancient rule societas delinquere non potest – responsibility belongs to individuals – may really be antique and outdated.

It is not necessary to simply transfer the legal liability of a natural person to a corporation, which probably would be very controversial. Fault can also be based on, for instance, a legal person’s internal organization or aggressive corporate cultures (as several cases of misconduct have shown). The bottom line? – Crimes are not always committed by men…


Andreas Rasche is Professor of Business and Society at Copenhagen Business School and Visiting Professor at the Stockholm Schools of Economics. More at www.arasche.com and @RascheAndreas.

Pic by zolnierek, Fotolia.

Empowerment Inc.

By Lauren McCarthy.

  • Empowering individual women will not on its own bring about a transformation in gender relations between men and women
  • There’s a focus on economic empowerment at the detriment of other forms of equality
  • If ‘empowerment’ becomes a byword for individualised wealth accumulation, led by corporations, then it loses its transformative magic

Approximate reading time: 2-3 minutes.

Girl Power meets Corporate Power
What does ‘empowerment’ mean? To give oneself some sort of power? This is the crux of empowerment’s initial meaning, but today the concept has been hacked apart and put back together again into some kind of neoliberal Frankenstein’s monster. We’ve seen adverts selling leggings, moisturiser and make-up touted as ‘empowering’, while the ‘clean, sculptural lines’ of designer clothing promise to empower. Sheryl Sandberg and other elite women business leaders speak of the empowerment that comes with ‘leaning in’ at work- but oh, don’t forget to #BanBossy. And some of the biggest investments in recent years have been seen in ‘women’s empowerment programmes’, especially those in supply chains in the global South.

Three Major Problems with Empowerment Inc.
In my recent publication in Business Ethics Quarterly I reflect on one of these programmes, and some of the challenges that come with our modern-day contortions of empowerment.

First, there’s the focus on individuals. Gender equality is about social transformation- it’s about equality and equity for human beings regardless of their sex or gender. So a focus on empowering individual women may make life better for that one woman- but it will not on its own bring about a transformation in gender relations between men and women.

Second, there’s the focus on economic empowerment at the detriment of other forms of equality. Of course it’s great if women can earn more from their micro-businesses (or earn mega-bucks as CEOs). But without the social standing to challenge patriarchy, and without voice in political systems, long-term gender equality is far from won.

Third, we need to talk about who is doing the empowering. So much of corporate rhetoric on empowerment is corporate led- ‘we will empower’, ‘we will enable’. Where are the voices of the women themselves in all this? In the 1960s and 70s, in the era of civil rights movements and women’s liberation, empowerment was associated with consciousness-raising and the importance of people (often in groups) recognising the structural power relations which oppressed them- and their own ‘power within’ to challenge oppression. Empowerment, then, is related to society- and to oppressed groups finding their own economic, social and political power within that society. Empowerment is not ‘done onto’ another.

Remember Radicalism?
Promoting gender equality is a much-needed string to the CSR bow. Yet if ‘empowerment’ becomes a byword for individualised wealth accumulation, led by corporations, then it loses its transformative magic. As my colleague Jeremy argued in a recent BOS blog– we need to make feminism- and by association empowerment- radical again.


Lauren McCarthy is a Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Velux Visiting Fellow, at Copenhagen Business School. She tweets @genderCSR.

Pic by Tara, edited by BOS.

When Good CSR Intentions With Communities Go Bad

By Rajiv Maher.

  • Can companies get CSR efforts “right” by engaging in dialogue with communities, thus improve relations and their impacts?
  • Reality shows that companies tend to engage with a few selected community leaders only (who normally receive certain benefits), which creates internal tensions
  • Indeed, consultations processes offer a platform for companies and governments to fragment and divide resistance to their projects

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

In this post I reflect on the past ten years of working as a practitioner and researcher on the issue of CSR, company – community relations and conflicts. Overall, it is striking to see the gap between the optimism held by practitioners and the pessimism of those affected in communities when it comes to the companies’ socio-economic and environmental impacts. A common response from those working in CSR is that the company’s intentions are good and sincere. Though I have little reason to doubt this point, unfortunately nice intentions from companies, governments, and NGOs carry little currency for communities affected by extractives and natural resources projects.

CSR, Dialogue and Engagement as solutions to territorial conflicts with business
The term CSR has lost much credibility within business and practitioner circles, who these days tend to associate the term more with philanthropy. Instead, practitioners have shifted over to preferring terms like sustainable business, sustainability, community investment, shared value and even human rights and business to label their efforts with nearby communities. Nonetheless all these concepts have in common the aim to bring more good than harm whilst creating genuine win-win scenarios with the communities. A key concept, that cuts across all these terms of implementation is that of dialogue and engagement.

Dozens of well written guidebooks and manuals or toolkits have been published in recent years by multilateral institutions such as the UN and World Bank and governments on community engagement, dialogue and investment by business.  The theory underpinning this is that by engaging in dialogue with communities, companies can then get it right, meaning improve relations and their impacts. It is this assumption that I have tried to interrogate over the past ten years whilst visiting 11 mining and four hydropower affected communities across Brazil, Chile and Peru in addition to multiple conversations with relevant officials from business, government, civil society and activism.

What does CSR and Engagement look like from those who are Engaged?
In short these well intended policies are seen as decisive in nature by those on the receiving end. In every community I have visited the saddening common denominator so far has been the fragmentation of community fabric due to the arrival of these megaprojects armed with their well-meaning CSR strategies. The divisions take place mostly along the lines of those who are willing to accept and engage with the CSR and those who are outrightly opposed to the megaproject on the grounds of the impacts to their culture, spirituality, ecology and livelihoods.

At first communities often start out as collectively opposed to the siting of the project, however, exhaustion and fatigue set in over time as governments and companies stubbornly persist with imposing the project with an increasing number of CSR related carrots. As time passes the dejected phrase I often hear in communities is “we are tired, we just want the conflict to end and make the most of this bad situation. The company has the backing of the state, and we don’t seem to have the power to reject it.” Consequences of these community divisions have included the rupture of relations amongst nuclear family members, neighbours, the eviction of tenants from their rental accommodation and even threats of violence and to personal security.

Next I have found that the group that chooses to give the company a chance and engage with it soon loses its faith and trust in the process as the promised jobs and benefits do not materialize. The companies tend to engage with a few selected community leaders only (who normally receive certain benefits), which creates further internal tensions. I have felt these tensions and mistrust grow with each repeat visit to a community.

The companies are also keen to follow best practice community investment approaches as espoused by leading development practitioners. A key message from this group of professionals seem to be well captured by the mantra “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats forever.” This has translated itself in practice into a plethora of training or capacity building courses delivered by companies to communities around entrepreneurship. Typical courses I have encountered include biscuit making, handcraft and beauty/hair salon courses, which community members found of limited worth. Residents stressed they all had immediate needs of having a fish for the day as well as learning how to fish, but that eating for the day mattered most and this is frowned upon by companies and CSR professionals. In short you can imagine the complex internal social and political struggles that now take place between and amongst community residents who are now divided into different groups that have no trust in one another.

What do companies say about this?
The corporate response to the abovementioned critique has normally been to refute the level of internal divisions, stating it was worse before they arrived. Practitioners often claim that the CSR standards themselves are not at fault, but they just need to be better implemented. Poor implementation of CSR would explain the gap in its portrayal. Implicit in these responses is that the projects should always go ahead, but in a more responsible manner, one that satisfies all stakeholders. Perhaps it is time for business and authorities to assess whether their projects should be sited in communities where rejection is outright from the beginning.

So what’s the solution? That’s what counts!
This is the question I am slapped in the face with by practitioners in the CSR field. The implication here is that, if one has no better solution then we should permit the lesser evil to continue. Of course the role of the state is fundamental in these situations and this cannot be done justice in a short blog post. My main nugget of advice to all those working with or studying CSR would be to view its implementation primarily from the perspective of affected actor. Taking a bottom-up approach will undoubtedly add more complexity for CSR professionals. However, it may also lessen the grievances experienced by communities and workers. In the case of indigenous peoples we should look to international legal instruments from the UN such as the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples from 2007. Here the UN state the importance of self-determination of communities and this affords them the right to veto certain projects in their territory. Unfortunately to date companies together with governments have been able to astutely maneuverer themselves around international indigenous peoples rights by imposing consultations on them where they have the perfect platform to fragment and divide resistance to their projects.

The complexities outlined above need to be taken into account by all those who wish to work and research CSR in the community in natural resource related contexts. I would like to emphasize that this post is not a dismissal of all CSR related attempts. However, I would like to raise the flag that in general the sentiment that CSR is used to manufacture consent is strengthening, and practitioners would be wise to consider real as opposed to reformatory changes to CSR. It would appear there are no more new bottles for the wine.


Rajiv Maher is Assistant Professor in Critical Management Studies at Université Paris-Dauphine and is a current research fellow at the Governing Responsible Business Research Environment, CBS. He researches the impacts of CSR related initiatives in communities affected by extractives and natural resources projects. 

Pic by Rajiv Maher, edited by BOS.
The community in Los Choros village, Chile are mostly fishermen, farmers or working with eco-tourism. They are highly opposed to the Dominga mine project. The community from Higuera however is very much in favour of the mine. Yet, earlier this year in August 2017, the government rejected the mine due to the impacts it would have on the marine reserve hotspot of Punta de Choros, where most of the worlds humboldt penguins spend time.