Corporate responsibility: We need more pressure

I have just had dinner with three very different, but very experienced, and agreeable folks. One from consulting with business clients, two from leading NGOs in sustainable business (read: slightly more sustainable business).

One thing we all agreed on: There’s maybe 1000 big companies, if that, in the world, taking note of sustainability. (‘taking note’ is a broad term).

There’s maybe 100-300 companies doing some interesting work (large ones, say over $500 million a year turnover).

There’s about 30-40 leading large firms who, to varying degrees, are doing innovative, target-based work.

That leaves somewhere between 80,000 and 150,000 ‘transnational’ companies, doing compliance. At best.

We need to raise our game. The big corporates who some work are getting complacent.

Governments are nowhere, generally.

NGOs have been weak on campaigning.

The media is in structural chaos, and cannot be relied upon as in the past to do much at all.

The corporate responsibility ‘industry’ is in a poor state. Yes we have made some progress. But we are not cutting it in the mainstream. Not yet.

Time to get to work. I include Ethical Corporation in that.

How should we raise the game?

Your turn.

Tell me I am right/wrong/mad/irrelevant.

Say something.


  1. You're 100% right. The scale of what is going on in the corporate world is insufficient to deal with the problems we face, particularly around climate. We aren't even close to having an honest conversation about energy in the U.S. The NGOs in particular need to get serious about this,

  2. Good column, Toby.

    I would say that NGOs are as good at doing campaigns aimed at corporations as corporations are at properly addressing sustainability.

    That is to say, some NGOs – such as Amazon Watch, ForestEthics, International Labor Rights Forum, Oxfam, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, and United Students Against Sweatshops – do excellent campaigns. (I am on the advisory board for the BENNY Awards that honor the best corporate campaigns of the year.) But most NGOs, including Amnesty International for which I volunteer much of my time, have mixed success.

    A number of NGOs have switched from campaign pressure tactics to a much more consulting role with corporations. This has lessened the NGO pressure on corporations to act sustainably.

    So I would concur that there is failure of leadership and management in the NGO sector on a scale similar to that in the corporate sector.

  3. Totally agree with this analysis – especially on the subject of 'compliance' versus real innovation. Enlightened self interest still dominates corporate thinking, rather than the creation of genuine shared value. There are few truly innovative business models out there, such as, for example the excellent Liberation CIC (www.chooseliberation.com), now the key supplier of Fairtrade nuts to supermarkets, but with a fully inclusive supply chain and a global producer cooperative owning 45% of shares.

    Whilst NGO campaigns have targetted specific commodities and supply chains, we have also fallen prey to using quick-win marketing tactics in our public engagement (eg use of celebrity endorsement, reward based promotions). These reinforce with the public the same power, wealth or status related values that sociologists are now telling us act in direct contradiction to the values of social justice, environmentalism and wider world concern we should be promoting in order to shore up sustainable-minded consumer bases for sustainable, fairer business. WWF's recent work, Common Cause (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf) outlines this in more detail. If NGOs are going to be successful in creating deepening public and corporate conviction on these issues, then we don't just need to 'up' our game, we also need to rethink the tactics by which we're playing it.

  4. We change what's normal in part by saying it as we see it like you do Toby. Well done and well said.

    Many are taking up the Responsibility Revolution as Jeffrey Hollender puts it.

    and as Margaret Mead once remarked "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

  5. Thank you Toby for sparking the debate…

    Read the great feedback so far:

    Ian says "We change what's normal in part by saying it as we see it like you do Toby". Change can be incremental or revolutionary. We should do a deeper pre-mortem analysis http://post.ly/1oxhY
    and try to see how to overcome real/potential constraints to faster change.

    Simon confirms your analysis "failure of leadership and management in the NGO sector on a scale similar to that in the corporate sector" to which you have also added lack of action on the part of governments.

    My recipe for change is to focus on working with the 30-40 true innovative companies and let the rest join/follow.

    What do you think?

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