There’s nothing new about corporate social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been around for rather longer than many might suppose: its antecedents go back a few centuries.  There have always been some business owners who have taken a more enlightened and ethical stance than the majority in running their enterprises, believing that maximising the return to shareholders is not the only objective.  Concern for other stakeholders, particularly employees; a belief in providing goods and services with integrity; a desire for honesty and fair dealing: these are traits that are not exclusive to any place, group or time.  For instance, there is a direct thread linking the enlightened attitudes of the Lever brothers, who founded what became the modern multinational corporation of Unilever, and that company’s recent pioneering Sustainable Living Plan.

However, if there is one group who have demonstrated a consistent commitment to what we now know as corporate social responsibility, it is probably the Quakers.  Beginning as a Christian sect founded by George Fox (right) during the upheaval of the English Civil War, its members suffered great persecution until the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, like other non-conformist sects, Quakers were debarred from universities and from a range of professions and offices.  As a result many went into business, but took their beliefs in honesty, equality (for instance, between men and women) and social justice with them.  Their principles were an intrinsic part of their spiritual convictions and for a long time were seen as being threatening to the established order, revolutionary even.

Many of the companies they founded became very successful when customers realised that they would not be ripped-off, unlike the experience with most of their rivals, and their employees rewarded the unusually good working conditions with loyalty.   The roll-call of great brand names founded by Quakers includes the chocolate firms – Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s, Fry’s and Terry’s; Barclays and Lloyds banks; Clark’s and K Shoes; Huntley & Palmers and Carr’s biscuits; Reckitts, Bryant & May, Allen & Hanbury, Albright & Wilson, Price Waterhouse, Swan Hunter, etc.  Contrary to received understanding of Quakers, they even founded a number of breweries.

Concern for the customer, translated into products of appropriate quality and consistency, at clearly stated prices, and backed by a brand name that can be trusted, foretell many of the fundamental precepts of good modern marketing practice.  Similarly, a concern for producers back up the supply chain presaged a key component of contemporary corporate social responsibility.  Over 100 years ago Cadbury’s switched their cocoa supplies from slave-owning plantations in the Portuguese colonies to the Gold Coast (now Ghana); Fairtrade was still a long way in the future.

Some Quakers were demonstrating great prescience by holding views that we would now recognise as belonging to the sustainability movement.  John Woolman was an 18th century American Quaker and an early campaigner for peace, social justice and sustainability.  He spent his adult life campaigning against slavery and war, whilst showing concern for the poor, animals and the environment.  In 1772, the year of his death, he stated:  “The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age”.  This declaration is not dissimilar to the famous definition of sustainable development by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1987.

The ethical outlook of the early social responsibility pioneers, including Quakers, seems light years away from the amoral, if not immoral, mindset of a number of modern business leaders.  It is hard to discern any meaningful moral imperative behind the way in which the Murdochs have cynically undermined the democratic process and culture of a number of the English-speaking Western democracies and that the banks drove the world’s economy on to the rocks of the worst recession in 80 years.  Certainly the Quakers who dominated British banking for so long, and whose names still adorn two of the biggest global banks, would be appalled by many of the ruinous and unethical practices of modern banking that they worked so hard to try to eradicate.

The growing number of contemporary organizations rejecting some of the orthodoxies that have held sway for far too long, and that are adopting a more ethical and sustainable outlook, can draw inspiration in part from the early trailblazers, however.  In particular, perhaps, by taking a long-term view rather than being driven by the quarterly demands of the City and Wall Street, and through accountability to a wide group of stakeholders, including future generations.

About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
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4 Responses to There’s nothing new about corporate social responsibility

  1. Neil Dobson says:

    Some interesting points here and I agree that the past can indeed guide the future. In a recent article I touched on a similar point- the foundation of the town of Bournville near Birmingham by the chocolate company of the same name to provide better quality housing for their employee’s. For me the key argument you put forward is about thinking long term. I agree that a key structural issue with big business today is quarterly reporting and annual bonuses for senior management based on share price or annual performance. This leads to a culture of short-termism. To be ultimately successful a company needs a trusted brand and a secure supply chain meaning they can repeat a good customer experience over and over. Jim Stengel and Millwood Brown in their research that lead to the book ‘Grow: how ideals power success’ found that the top 50 brands of the last 10 years all had a strong ‘ideal’ at their core. This is however not recognised or translated by most marketeers I speak to into long term brand building. To many are tasked and targeted by their companies to hit short term sales targets which is why I believe we have a big disconnect between the hugely positive actions on sustainability we are seeing in a lot of boardrooms and the marketing messages put out by those very same brands.

    • I agree about the critical role of long-term thinking. Coincidentally I have just read an article by Nick Cooper of Millward Brown about the study you refer to. Marketers, when they are working for companies that really understand the discipline and the long-term income generators that are brands, don’t act in the short-term way that, as you say, is so widespread. It is no coincidence that Cooper cites the examples of Pampers and Dove as brands based upon strong ideals: they are of course owned by, respectively, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, two companies that have long-term brand building in their DNA and which also are embarked upon serious sustainability journeys.

  2. I was acquainted with the noble ideals of the 18th and 19th century Quakers when I visited Telford in Shropshire. However, Corporate Social Responsibility is increasingly important nowadays especially with the advent of social media. As a result of the associated transparency and scrutiny, social media now has a huge impact on organisations who try to differentiate themselves as being ethical…

  3. Thanks for the comment, Eniola. Things have certainly just got tougher for organisations hoping to hide some of their practices, but social media creates real opportunities for those that get it right.

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