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Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Age of Responsibility - Radical Confessions

What makes Ray Anderson and Interface different from, say, BP or Cadbury’s, is the depth of their admission and the scale of their ambition. Anderson’s latest book is called ‘Confessions of a Radical Industrialist’, in which he is able to admit not only that today’s economic system is broken, but that he and his company are part of the problem. He is able to see himself as a plunderer – not through malicious intent, or even greed, but by failing to question the true impacts of business on society and the environment. And as Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you, admission is the first step to recovery. Unfortunately, companies stuck in the Ages of Greed, Philanthropy, Management and Misdirection are all still in denial, respectively thinking that either there is no problem, or it’s not their problem, or it’s only a minor problem, or that it’s a problem to benefit from.

But the Age of Responsibility is not just about admission; it’s also about ambition. As far as I can tell, Interface is the first major company to set the BHAG (“big hairy audacious goal”) of zero negative impact. And beyond ‘no harm’, to also become a restorative business – to genuinely make things better; to leave this world with a net-positive balance. It is only such audacious goals that can lift the triple curses of incremental, peripheral and uneconomic CSR. As Robert Francis Kennedy reminds us: ‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ We need more pragamatic dreamers, business leaders who practice what brain-mind researcher and author Marilyn Ferguson calls Pragmagic.

Anderson was not the first radical business leader, nor perhaps even the most radical. The late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop International, had a missionary zeal that few will ever rival. Famous for her business-led activism, which began as an alliance with WWF in 1986 to save the whale, she went on to tackle issues as far ranging as animal rights, women’s self-esteem, human rights, fair trade and indigenous people’s rights. In her autobiography, Business As Unusual, she distilled her philosophy this way: ‘Business is a renaissance concept, where the human spirit comes into play. It does not have to be drudgery; it does not have to be the science of making money. It can be something that people genuinely feel good about, but only if it remains a human enterprise.’

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield who ‘hated running but loved food’ and therefore founded Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, became flag bearers for a more radical kind of responsibility as well. Their mission ‘to make the best possible ice cream in the nicest possible way’ was not just sweet talk. They put it into action in various ways, from going free range and supporting fairtrade to setting up a Climate Change College and sponsoring research into eco-friendly refrigeration. Their biography, The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, tells the story. ‘If you open up the mind,’ they concluded, ‘the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless. It’s a process of innovation.’

Ricardo Semler is another a self-confessed Maverick and CEO of the Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, who turned many assumptions about ‘good management’ on their head. At Semco, he allowed workers to set their own salaries and working hours; he taught everyone in the company, including shop floor workers, how to read a balance sheet; and he made everyone’s salary public (‘if you’re embarrassed about the size of your salary’, he said, ‘you’re probably not earning it’). His radical philosophy was this: Most companies hire adults and then treat them like children. All that Semco does is give people the responsibility and trust that they deserve.

This is an extract from Chapter 6 of The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of BusinessFor more information and ongoing updates, follow the The Age of Responsibility Blog

Copyright 2011 Wayne Visser

Monday, 7 March 2011

Yogesh Chauhan on "The Age of Responsibility"

A challenging and thought provoking book. In an age when corporate responsibility is a must for most large businesses, Wayne Visser reminds us that global environmental and social pressures show little sign of receding. He asks: are we as practitioners complacent, or worse, part of the problem? There is hope and optimism but only if we are brave and bold enough to re-engineer corporate responsibility. Read on...

Yogesh Chauhan, Chairman of the Corporate Responsibility Group and BBC Chief Adviser Corporate Responsibility.

The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business, by Wayne Visser is available from and other leading book retailers (ISBN-10: 0470688572, ISBN-13: 978-0470688571).

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Age of Marketing: Using smoke and mirrors

The tobacco industry is a past master in the art of marketing-led deception. For decades, as research on the negative health impacts of smoking piled up, the industry sponsored a campaign of disinformation and deception. Let’s start with what we know about tobacco. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘no other consumer product is as dangerous, or kills as many people. Tobacco kills more than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder and suicide combined.’ Of everyone alive today, 500 million will eventually be killed by smoking, and while 0.1 billion people died from tobacco use in the 20th century, ten times as many will die from the same cause in the 21st century.

This is not simply a health issue, but also an economic crisis. In America alone, smoking costs the economy $76 billion in health costs and lost productivity. Smoking-related diseases account for 6% of all health costs in the USA and, on average, a smoker takes 6.16 days of sick leave, as compared with 3.86 for non-smokers. Of all the trash collected in the USA in 1996, cigarette butts accounted for 20%. There are indirect costs as well. Every year 1 million fires are started by children using cigarette lighters. In 1997, China’s worst forest fire was caused by cigarettes and killed 300 people, as well as making 5,000 homeless and destroying 1.3 million hectares of land. In 2000, fires caused by smoking reportedly cost $27 billion and killed 300,000 people.

The debate about the ethics of industry-sponsored research and the practice of misdirection by Big Tobacco reached its zenith when, in 1994, the CEOs of seven of America’s largest tobacco companies16 testified before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of Congress, all denying that cigarettes are addictive. They all lied under oath. Two years later, an investigative article in Vanity Fair entitled ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ told the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a research chemist working for the tobacco company, who planned to go on the 60 Minutes TV show to expose the lies and deception of the industry, including the CEOs that he labelled ‘The Seven Dwarves’. The story was later turned into the 1996 movie The Insider starring Russell Crowe as Wigand, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Actor and Director) and five Golden Globes. Asked in an interview to separate fact from fiction in the movie, Wigand replied:

Was I followed by an ex-FBI agent in the employ of Brown &Williamson? Yes. Was there a bullet found in my mailbox in January 1996? Yes. Did someone threaten to harm my family if I told the truth about the inner workings of the tobacco company I worked for? Yes. Did the tobacco industry attempt to undermine my integrity with a 500 page smear campaign? Yes.

The industry took another public relations hit in 2005, with the release of the movie, Thank You for Smoking. It is a satirical comedy that follows the machinations of Big Tobacco’s chief spokesman Nick Naylor, who engages in PR-spin on behalf of cigarettes while trying to remain a role model for his 12-year-old son. Among the more amusing black humour scenes is one where Naylor and his friends – a firearm lobbyist and an alcohol lobbyist – meet every week and jokingly call themselves the ‘Merchants of Death’ or ‘The MOD Squad’.

Of course, Hollywood represents the lighter end of a far more serious and significant anti-tobacco lobby that has built momentum over the past two decades. We have simultaneously seen a United Nations WHO campaign and numerous governments passing legislation restricting smoking in public places and banning nearly all forms of tobacco advertising. The tobacco companies themselves have been scrambling to regain their lost credibility and to present a more responsible face, seemingly with some success.

For example, companies like British American Tobacco (BAT) have engaged in extensive stakeholder consultation exercises and, since 2001, their businesses in more than 40 markets have produced Social Reports, many of which have won awards from organizations as diverse as the United Nations Environment Programme, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants. BAT has also been ranked in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the FTSE Ethical Bonus Index and Business in the Community (BITC) Corporate Responsibility Index, and they funded Nottingham University’s International Centre for CSR.  If these accolades and associations are to be believed, ‘responsible tobacco’ is not an oxymoron after all.

This is an extract from Chapter 4 of The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of BusinessFor more information and ongoing updates, follow the The Age of Responsibility Blog

Copyright 2010 Wayne Visser

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Michael Blowfield on "The Age of Responsibility"

Amongst the advocates of CSR as an innovative management approach, Wayne Visser is a well-known voice. This new book states more clearly than most why CSR should not be dismissed, but would benefit from some serious rethinking.

Michael Blowfied, Senior Research Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University and author of Corporate Responsibility

The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business, by Wayne Visser is available from and other leading book retailers (ISBN-10: 0470688572, ISBN-13: 978-0470688571).