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Can we escape the sustainable business and corporate responsibility cocktail party?

The world of sustainable business and corporate responsibility has become what one seasoned commentator calls a “cocktail party”.

Everyone circulates, pointing out what a pretty dress someone is wearing, or noting how they loved their speech on X or their announcement on Y.

You don’t go to a cocktail party and talk radical politics, or why social exclusion is becoming normal.

And so the analogy works well for the field many readers of this blog wholly or partially inhabit.

As the business models for the media have fallen apart, and cheap “I have a voice, I’m on Twitter” social media ‘personalities’ have somehow become part of the ‘stakeholder/opinion former’ community, so we’ve lost our critical edge as a community of business people trying to be radical.

The financial crisis, the failure of globally-minded climate agreements and the crashing carbon price have all contributed to the apathetic cocktail party we now circulate in, admiring incrementalism as we go.

The CSR/Sustainability media, weak though it has always been, is now nothing more than a PR fest of press releases, email spam and the desperate digital waving of underemployed consultants or cash-hungry NGOs.

This is why Greenpeace seems to be doing such a good job. In the land of the blind, the one eyed person is king, to bring the old phrase up to date.

The magazine I founded in 2001, Ethical Corporation, is not as radical as it once was. It’s still seen as an “NGO magazine” by some readers (one reason why they like it) but we too, have accidentally adapted (not consciously) to the economic reality of not feeling able to offend anyone, too often. Time to reconsider or become just like everyone else.

What are the solutions? They are threefold in my view:

1) Everyone I meet is sick and tired of the anodyne cheerleading uncritical dross put out by the so-called ‘media’ platforms in the area. The ones who don’t use professional journalists, just interns, consultants and copy uploaders. So there’s a business opportunity to be recognised there. That applies to everyone.

2) Campaign groups also need to raise their game. Many seem tired, bereft of ideas or the desire to execute good plans. They need to take a leaf from Greenpeace’s book (our one eyed person above) and campaign on the one hand, and promote solutions on the other.

3) Clearly there’s no commercial money in investigative journalism, so perhaps non-profit income and investment is needed. This has happened in more mainstream journalism and (in climate change coverage in the US, for example) and needs to happen in the field of sustainable business, too. There is money out there, it just needs to be directed to the kind of constructively critical business journalism that the mainstream media cannot handle the complexity of.

There’s a rule I am trying to follow here: By all means moan, but at least have some kind of solution to suggest.

My first three are above. Weak as they are, it’s a start, I hope. 

What are yours?

Or are you too busy reading press releases rewritten for twitter and “sustainable business media” platforms to comment?


  1. Totally agree Toby, whilst being embarrassed to have been part of just such a culture during the social media roller-coaster.

    At times it has been difficult to discriminate between the enthusiasm, passion and activity of the agenda and those who seek only the financial rewards from a more superficial interaction.

  2. Good post, Toby. Agree with you. CR has become an industry wrapped around its own jargon, structures, and personalities.

    We need to accept that change sometimes means people losing and winning. We like to pretend there are fixes–technological, market-based–where everyone can win. Not everything can be like that.

    I think one problem with CR is that it denies the reality of power. It pretends that business is outside politics/power relations, when it's very much part of it. Everything it does–from its investments, to how it funds itself–is an implicit political decision, a stake in the political economy.

    Take climate change. Yes, we can develop a carbon market, and trade our way to more efficiency and investment in green energy. But the fundamental problem–sorry–is the fossil fuel industry. If it digs up every last barrel of oil, every last ton of coal, we're screwed. No amount of happy CR talk, sustainability indexes, or cocktail parties, are to going to change this.

    The main reason the world's most influential nation–the US–hasn't faced up to climate change isn't a lack of solutions. We know what needs to happen. It's because the FF industry is able to stop things going through Congress. It's because companies have paid to muddy the debate, and play for time. It's about money and power.

    This doesn't mean we have to be rude to each other. But it does mean we need to be blunt, and accept reality. CR has run its course as far as the big issues go. We need to go back to old-fashioned politics, and accept that not every issue can be win-win.

  3. David, thanks for the comment. Very much agree that's a tough balance.

  4. Ben, well said. That Citizens United ruling was so much more significant than anyone outside the US realised.

  5. Yes, we are all drinking the same cocktails. Fortunately, others aspire to schmooze and they improve their wardrobe so they can get an invitation.

    Spotlighting best practices helps everyone up their game.

  6. A very sharp and incisive post, Toby – this needed to be said. I wonder if we might need a more earnest, authentic, and mindful approach, if we are to deliver the real change we all want to see. The party's over; time to get to work…