Kevin Moss

How recession-proof is corporate social responsibility?

It goes without saying that recessions change everyone’s priorities; individuals concerned about layoffs cut back on their spending and businesses focused on boosting profitability take similar measures at a macro level. What about corporate social responsibility?

There’s plenty of evidence that with fears of a double dip recession that consumers are less inclined to factor in environmental and ethical considerations when making the most basic purchasing decisions.

In fact, according to a survey released by Bensimon Byrne, a Toronto-based advertising agency, environmental and sustainability messages were resonating with fewer consumers – with only 32% considering them to be relevant compared to 46% at the before the recession began in 2008.  As another commentator in the article put it, consumers are primarily concerned with “what’s in it for me?”

‘What’s in it for me’ continues to get us some of the way there, that is, in those cases where environmentally friendly behavior goes hand-in-hand with cost reduction for the business or for the consumer.

Recession as a symptom of a larger sustainability issue

Many CSR programs directly contribute to cost reductions; a no-printing policy might reduce waste, but it also reduces the cost of ordering office supplies.  Similarly, teleconferencing programs that might have been touted to reduce a company’s carbon footprint are also saving millions of dollars in travel-related expenses.

The irony in looking to consumers to lead the way in solving the problem is that our consumer society has a large role to play in causing the problem. If Paul Gilding has it right in The Great Disruption (and I think he does), the recession is a symptom of a much larger sustainability issue in our lifestyles and our consumption based business models. Looking to a mass of green consumers to buy our way out of the recession is not a sustainable solution – financially or environmentally.

But I see a deeper lesson from the diminishing attention consumers are apparently paying to sustainability. Consumers, myself included, are in the business of short term gratification.  We cannot rely on consumer behavior to help us turn the corner.  Instead we need to increase our focus on investors.  Some investors are in it for the short term, but many for the long haul. Sustainability is a medium to long term challenge (although getting closer all the time) and if long term investors reward sustainable companies, the more sustainable behavior we will see.

I maintain the position I stated in a post ‘The recession could be good for sustainability’ back in 2009.  I hold out hope that this downturn is an opportunity to make a step change for the better in the way corporations approach sustainability.  After all, times of adversity provide us with opportunities for change.

Share your thoughts by commenting below or joining the conversation in the BT Let’s Talk LinkedIn Group.


The author, Kevin Moss has responsibility for implementation of BT’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy in North America.

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