A recent corporate social responsibility (CSR) ranking in Fortune magazine reveals one of the many inherent flaws in this burgeoning practice. Fortune, along with the CSR consulting firms AccountAbility, Csrnetwork and Asset4, came to the conclusion that BP and Royal Dutch Shell were among the top ten most "accountable" large companies on the planet.
Of all the do-gooder companies of recent years, why exactly are these hydro-carbon greenwashing giants worthy of such admiration?
Instead of ranking companies according to an objective measure of their performance, the firms were ranked according to "the quality of their commitment to social and environmental goals." In other words, the companies worth praising are not necessarily the most responsible companies, but the companies with the best constructed "commitments."
These companies win accolades from consultancies because they implemented the accountability measurement schemes which the CSR consultancies helped design. It is understandable that the consultants would want to promote their best case studies; BP, for example, uses AccountAbility's own "AA1000" CSR standard.
That is one reason why CSR communications are increasingly coming off as public relations spin. Many companies are spending more money hiring consultants and brand masters to make their firm look like they care about measuring their environmental and social performance than mitigating their actual impact.
Presumably, CSR reporting should make it easier, not more difficult, for stakeholders like environmental groups, government regulators, unions and even company customers to hold each firm accountable in the marketplace. But if CSR reporting can't distinguish the innovators from the offenders, there is little incentive for firms to do anything more than simply spend money on CSR marketing.
Let us be clear. Not all CSR is PR spin, although too often, CSR directors have no real budget or power within a company. CSR representatives that only serve a symbolic function may get the ax during this recession, the ultimate test of how committed major companies truly are.
There are plenty of noteworthy CSR managers working at companies across America who are involved in their firms' actual long-term strategies. We hope CSR managers see an opportunity to gain more influence within their organizations during these turbulent times. Maybe next year, a ranking system will reward the true leaders.