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The Age of Responsibility: an interview with Wayne Visser

Interview by: Giles Metcalfe

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Wayne VisserWayne Visser is Founder and Director of the think-tank CSR International and the author of twelve books, including nine on the role of business in society. His most recent book is The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business.

In addition, Wayne is Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, Visiting Professor of Sustainability at Magna Carta College, Oxford, and Birmingham Graduate School and of CSR at La Trobe Graduate School of Management, Australia. Before getting his PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (Nottingham University, UK), Wayne was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Cap Gemini in South Africa. His other qualifications include an MSc in Human Ecology (Edinburgh University, UK) and a Bachelor of Business Science with Honours in Marketing (Cape Town University, South Africa).

In 2010, Wayne completed a 20 country "CSR Quest" World Tour, to share best practices in corporate sustainability and responsibility.


GM: What was the background to you writing The Age of Responsibility?

Wayne Visser:

I wanted to explore the paradox of CSR (by which I mean "Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility"). The paradox is this: Over the past 20 years, since I started working in this field, we have witnessed a mushrooming of CSR practices; and yet we are categorically and catastrophically failing to reverse the world’s worst social, environmental and ethical trends (income inequality, biodiversity loss, climate change, corruption, pick your crisis). Hence, I wanted to write a book that looked at why CSR has failed so far, and what we can do to make sure it succeeds in future.

GM: Who should read the book, and why? Aren’t you preaching to the converted?

Wayne Visser:

The book is aimed at all those who believe business can and should be a net positive contributor to society, i.e. that it should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Today, this includes a wide variety of actors, from entrepreneurs and managers to academics and activists. For those new to the subject, the book will serve as a comprehensive introduction, while for those already working on social, environmental and ethical issues, it will challenge many of their assumptions about business’s performance, as well as giving new insights and examples of innovative ways forward. CSR sceptics will find many of their arguments vindicated, while ‘true believers’ will discover how to progress their ambitions further and faster.

GM: In chapter 1 of the book, you say CSR “has failed”. How so, and if so what needs to replace it?

Wayne Visser:

In much the same way as a doctor should judge their success or failure by whether the patient is getting healthier or sicker, CSR should be judged by whether the wellbeing of the planet and its people is improving or deteriorating. Today, we have mountains of data that show that, on most social and environmental issues, things are getting worse, not better. I am not arguing that CSR should be replaced, but rather that it should rapidly evolve into a practice that is more effective in meeting its implicit goals of creating a better world. I call this smarter approach ‘systemic’ CSR or CSR 2.0. ‘Transformational’ or ‘radical’ CSR are other labels that also fit.

GM: What are the “ages and stages” of CSR?

Wayne Visser:

The ‘ages and stages’ of CSR describe the different approaches and levels of maturity in CSR that we find associated with five overlapping economic ages. Hence, we see defensive CSR in the age of greed, charitable CSR in the age of philanthropy, promotional CSR in the age of marketing, strategic CSR in the age of management and systemic CSR in the age of responsibility. The first four ages and stages are what I call CSR 1.0, while the fifth is what characterises CSR 2.0. Different countries and companies will most likely have examples of all ages and stages in practice, but one will tend to dominate the CSR agenda. Understanding this allows those nations and businesses to plot a path of progress.

GM: You name names in the book, citing real-world examples with unexpurgated references. Who are the heroes and villains of CSR?

Wayne Visser:

The book cites over 300 organizations, which collectively form a mosaic of regressive, evolving and progressive CSR in practice. Rather than see these as heroes and villains, I like to see them as varying approaches that have had less or more impact in different contexts. To give a sample of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, the book explores the following cases in considerable depth: Lehman Brothers (reflecting the age of greed), Standard Oil (the age of philanthropy), BP (the age of marketing), Cadbury’s (the age of management) and Interface (the age of responsibility). I also illustrate emerging best practice across the five principles of CSR 2.0 with cases: A Little World (for the principle of creativity), Wal-Mart (scalability), the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change (responsiveness), AIESEC (glocality) and Patagonia (circularity).

GM: In chapter 2, you talk about the 80’s ‘greed is good’ ethos, and the companies and individuals reaping what they sowed with the fall of Enron, Lehman Brothers, Bernard Madoff et al. For many people though, the biggest crime wasn’t the financial malfeasance, it was getting caught…

Wayne Visser:

I believe the way in which some businesses and their executives amass vast private economic benefits while they impose devastating social and environmental costs is a systemic flaw in shareholder-driven capitalism which needs to be recognised and seriously addressed. Hence, the biggest crime wasn’t the so-called individual ‘bad apples’ getting caught; it was allowing an economic system to get so out of control that it creates incentives and rewards behaviour that no longer serves the common good.

GM: Regarding the subject of greed, surely berating businesspeople for being “greedy” is like chiding a cat for killing birds – it’s in their nature…

Wayne Visser:

My starting assumption is that we all have a certain amount of greed, or selfishness. Adam Smith and others recognised this, and indeed it has helped to power great advances in wealth and quality and life over the past century. But at some point, if we allow companies and individuals to go ‘beyond reasonable greed’ (to use the title of my first book), they become like cancer cells, destroying the very life on which they are dependent, namely healthily functioning ecosystems and social systems. As a moral philosopher, Adam Smith understood this too, but we seem to have ignored his Theory of Moral Sentiments and given the ‘invisible hand’ of the market unrestricted license to feed (and pleasure) itself.

GM: You state your conviction that “the Age of Responsibility will vanquish greed” – what makes you sure of this, especially given the above statements and all of the recent financial scandals?

Wayne Visser:

On the contrary, I state that “I am under no illusions that the Age of Responsibility will vanquish greed. No doubt, the selfish gene will continue to spark our evolution. And yet, if we are successful, the Age of Responsibility will provide capitalism with that much-needed moral compass and Systemic CSR will provide business with a mission-critical social purpose.” There will always be those companies that remain stuck in the Age of Greed, practising Defensive CSR. However, I see the emergence of more accountability mechanisms and pressures from governments and civil society, which I believe have the potential to punish greed-obsessed companies and to reward responsible businesses.

GM: You talk of philanthropy, but that’s a dirty word to many CSR authors and social entrepreneurs, conjuring up images of Victorian fat cat industrialists who endow foundations on their death bed after exploiting their workforce all of their lives… What is your definition of “philanthrocapitalism”?

Wayne Visser:

I am similarly quite critical of philanthropy, which represents a very limited and immature approach to CSR. It has its place, especially in supporting under-funded causes or meeting desperate needs, but it has many problems, not least issues of dependency and only addressing the symptoms rather than the root problems. Hence, I am not a great fan of Matthew Bishop and Michael Green’s concept of philanthrocapitalism, in which we rely on the super-rich to “save the world’s poor”. I believe responsible business is more about how you make your money (i.e. the impacts of your business) and less about being generous once the money has been made.

GM: Milton Friedman took a very dim view of pure CSR, calling it “subversive”, and would only have time for it if it was allied to the best interests of the company and its shareholders. Is his “strategic philanthropy” view of CSR still prevalent today?

Wayne Visser:

There has been an undoubted shift away from the idea of exclusive shareholder interest towards a broader, more inclusive model of multi-stakeholder responsibility. However, in the ranking of stakeholder interests, shareholders (and the financial analysts that proxy for them) are still driving corporate behaviour towards short-term, narrowly-defined financial measures of success. Even in academic circles, we still see the Friedmanite view being resurrected, as evidenced by the article on 23 August 2010 in the Wall Street Journal called The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility.

GM: What role does “Venture Philanthropy” play? Is this where social entrepreneurship comes in?

Wayne Visser:

Venture philanthropy – i.e. funding social enterprises rather than pure charities – is one aspect of the broader social entrepreneurship movement. It is premised on eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll’s notion of supporting “causes where a lot of good comes from a little bit of good. In other words, where the positive social returns vastly exceed the amount of time and money invested.” However, the mushrooming trend of social enterprise (also variously called social business, for-benefit corporations and community interest companies) is the more important and significant development, bringing creativity and scalability to our most pressing social and environmental issues.

GM: Can you expand on your concept of the “Age of Marketing”, and “greenwash”? It seems to be based on a mixed-bag of dark, underhand tactics - misdirection, misinformation, dirty tricks, falsehoods, and paid-for lobbying… I take it you’re not a fan of the marketeer’s (black) art? Yet you have an honours degree in Marketing… Did you have a “road to Damascus” moment when you realized that you had “gone over to the darkside”?

Wayne Visser:

Even while studying marketing, I had misgivings about the psychologically manipulative aspects of advertising and marketing. I am not against the pure marketing notion of identifying customer needs and working out how best to meet these. However, I do think a great deal of marketing has become the art of artificially stimulating needs, amplifying wants (or greeds) and offering products as pseudo-satisfiers. Companies in the Age of Marketing, with its practices of Promotional CSR and greenwashing, are simply using CSR to promote their brand, image and reputation, often without fundamentally addressing the negative impacts of their core business on society and the environment.

GM: What defines the “Age of Management”? What are the “three curses of CSR 1.0”?

Wayne Visser:

In the Age of Management, companies tackle social, environmental and ethical issues by turning them into management systems, with policies, objectives, targets, procedures, reports, audits, and so on. This Strategic CSR approach suffers from three fundamental problems, namely that changes remain incremental (voluntary and gradual), peripheral (not integrated into the business) and uneconomic (not consistently rewarded by the market). The reason for these ‘curses’ is that companies are not challenged to transform their core business to be fully responsible and sustainable, but rather they are able to co-opt the CSR agenda while setting their own voluntary targets and often making minimal changes to ‘business as usual’.

GM: What defines the “Age of Responsibility”? As with an alcoholic or a drug addict, is having ‘a moment of clarity’ (or an intervention) the first step on the road towards CSR enlightenment?

Wayne Visser:

The Age of Responsibility is premised on the dual practices of admission and ambition. Admission requires a genuine acknowledgement that business as it is practiced today is not sustainable and responsible, i.e. it has a net negative impact on society and the environment (as CEO of Interface puts it, we are all "plunderers"). Examples of companies that have faced up publicly to this truth include Interface, Seventh Generation and Patagonia. Ambition, on the other hand, requires that companies set audacious goals to reach sustainability, such as Wal-Mart committing to zero waste and 100% renewable energy, or Unilever planning to double the size of the business, while halving its environmental impacts.

GM: How does your new CSR model – “CSR 2.0” – differ from CSR 1.0? What are its principles?

Wayne Visser:

CSR 2.0 is different from CSR 1.0 in a similar way that Web 2.0 is different to Web 1.0. It is based on a more collaborative, innovative and empowering approach, which challenges the more centralised, standardised and tokenist practises of the past. Underlying CSR 2.0 are the principles of responsiveness to problems, creativity and scalability of solutions, glocality of methods (combining global and local sensitivities) and circularity of design (i.e. cradle to cradle production, creating zero emissions and waste and net positive impacts).

GM: You believe that civil society organizations (CSOs) are the future. Do you subscribe to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ ethos? Is it not a "(cynical attempt) to dignify (the government’s) cuts agenda, by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society"?

Wayne Visser:

While I agree with the sentiments of Big Society, the government’s practices undermine its rhetoric. In fact, civil society has been devastated by government spending cuts, with some of the most crucial programmes like the Sustainable Development Commission being shut down by the Cameron government. Besides, the scale and urgency of our sustainability challenges and the failure of voluntary CSR by business means that in future we will need more and stronger government leadership and action on these issues, not less.

GM: Is ‘glocality’ now a necessity? Is it still an aim, or has it become the norm? How does social media muddy the glocality waters?

Wayne Visser:

Glocality acknowledges that business responsibility is complex and is shaped by global and local pressures, which are often contradictory. Hence, CSR 2.0 requires the ability to act in a multi-stakeholder context, guided by a strong set of values that can steer companies through the murky miasma of dilemmas and competing demands. Social media now means that local issues can very quickly become global issues and vice versa. Hence, being sensitive to diverse interests and being transparent about sustainability performance is now a prerequisite for a company to earn and maintain its social licence to operate.

GM: What is the “Principle of Circularity”?

Wayne Visser:

Circularity is the idea of redesigning economic activity so that we close the loop on our production and consumption processes. In other words, every output (in terms of products) or emission (in terms of waste) becomes an input (as raw materials) back into the business cycle. Hence, rather than simply minimising waste, this so-called ‘cradle to cradle’ approach (to use William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s term) designs products and services to eliminate waste and even to have net positive impacts. For example, buildings that create more energy than they use. It’s about designing commerce to be good, rather than less bad.

GM: How do your ideas dovetail with Change Management (CM)? What role do “change agents” play? What characterizes them?

Wayne Visser:

Change is a necessity implicit in the transition to an Age of Responsibility. Importantly, however, it requires transformational or step-change, rather than gradual, incremental change. The book looks to the theories of tipping points and butterfly effects to anticipate how rapid and radical change towards a more sustainable future can happen. I also emphasise the need to re-orient the challenge towards a positive agenda, to convince people that this is about creating a better world and improved wellbeing, not sacrificing our present quality of life. Hence, we need change agents at all levels of society and organization, including experts, facilitators, catalysts and activists, which I explore in some detail in the final chapter.

GM: Does change come from within – within individuals, within organizations? Is it a top-down or bottom-up process?

Wayne Visser:

Successful change happens across multiple dimensions simultaneously. It needs a combination of top-down commitment and purpose and bottom-up values and actions. It relies on structural incentives and innovative solutions. It requires bottom-up dissatisfaction with the status quo and top-down visions of a sustainable future, as well as mid-level first steps to make change happen. It is the aggregation of all of these efforts that overcomes our inbuilt resistance to change, so that we reach a critical mass of opinion and action, resulting in swarming activity towards a positive outcome.

GM: What’s next for you?

Wayne Visser:

I am planning two sequels to The Age of Responsibility. The next in the series will be The Age of Innovation, because I believe we need to highlight and harness creativity that turns our sustainability and responsibility challenges into positive, exciting opportunities. And the third in the trilogy will be The Age of Purpose, because I am convinced that we will not be able to create a sustainable society until business rediscovers its deeper purpose to contribute positively to the world. Likewise, we as individuals need to find meaning in our lives through our work.

GM: Finally, are there any closing comments you would like to make?

Wayne Visser:

My final comment is to say that working in sustainability and responsibility gives me a schizophrenic view on the world. If I look at the science and the trends, it is hard not to be pessimistic. Yet if I look at the positive actions of many organizations and the passion of individuals to make a difference, it is hard not to be optimistic. In the end, I believe we must adopt a positive attitude, if only because it is more constructive and effective. CSR 2.0 is about the philosophy that says, if I was going to die tomorrow (or leave my organization or my country), I would still plant a tree today.

July 2011.

Find out more about Wayne Visser at www.waynevisser.com


The views expressed herein are those of the interviewee and, unless specifically stated, are not those of Emerald Management First or Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Emerald Group Publishing Limited is not responsible for any content posted by members of the public on this website or for the content of any third party websites. Any links to third party websites do not amount to any endorsement of that site by Emerald Group Publishing Limited.