Can corporate social responsibility survive through recession?

In recession, people are actually less forgiving of bad behaviour, writes Philip Monaghan.

All film-lovers will recall the famous scene in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid: our anti-heroes stand at the cliff edge with the prospect of either jumping off into the rapids below or being caught by the chasing posse to face a firing squad. The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) hesitates, saying he is scared to leap because he cannot swim. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) laughs out loud, pointing out that he need not worry – the jump from the cliff will kill them anyway. Both men make the jump and survive.

Many corporate leaders face a similar leap of faith when it comes to integrating sustainable development into their business strategies. Barclays, BP, Enron, Lehman Brothers and NewsCorp all have or had corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes in place, many of which have been lauded. Barclays and BP have rightly been praised in the past for their leadership roles in the Equator Principles (to enable environmental and social considerations in project financing) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (to counter bribery and corruption) respectively. Yet the Barclays interest-rate manipulation scandal in 2012 and the BP deepwater horizon spill in 2006 show that despite these best intentions a culture of "making a quick buck" at someone else’s expense can be extremely hard to shake. This has only had disastrous consequences for shareholders and wider society, but led to the ongoing existence of both companies been called into question at one point or another.

So what is the problem? Is CSR still merely a periphery activity in companies despite the hula? Does short-term gain always trump long-term value? Or is it just a few rogue actors within a company bringing the rest down, which is impossible to 100 per cent safeguard against? Maybe. Or perhaps it is because corporate planners and risk evaluators are simply looking at the wrong thing: their resiliency strategy needs rewiring. Misguided business executives assume they can ride out the storm from any high-stake gamble, including an illegal one. Their hunch is that they will not caught because they are smarter than everyone else. That even if they do get caught the market will forgive them if they continue to deliver good investor returns. And that people have short memories. Yet this is a very narrow approach to resiliency, one that is focused on being able to resist immediate shocks and fails to understand the complex system in which a single entity operates. Survival is also about the ability to learn and transforming. During a global recession, people's tolerance of bad corporate behaviour is much lower and their memories much longer. So the political uproar and ferocity of the regulator response on both sides of the Atlantic is no surprise (and hopefully any new supervision will include an overhaul of how credit rating agencies evaluate non-financial risk too).

If CSR is to be relevant for a post-recession world from 2015 onwards, it needs to become infused with resiliency thinking. CSR advocates now stand at the cliff edge at a time of great uncertainty. They can turn back or make another great leap of faith to shape a more responsible capitalism. Not an easy choice by any means, but the right choice for shareholders and society alike.

News Corp, one of many companies with a CSR program. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Monaghan is founder & CEO of Infrangilis (a consultancy and think-tank on resiliency strategies). He is the acclaimed author of the books Sustainability in Austerity (2010) and How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies (2012).

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.