Sarah Ford | January 28, 2015

Back to the future: Harvard ditches the business case

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has started the year with a controversial claim: that it is “asking too much” of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to “deliver business results”. The authors of The Truth about CSR assert that there is too much pressure to “dress up CSR as a business discipline”. Instead, they advocate the softer approach of aligning company activities with “purpose and values”. In other words: forget the business case, let’s get back to doing some “good” through bolt-on activities and warm words. With this worrying stance, HBR seems to be marking the start of 2015 by attempting to turn the clock back to the 1980s.

This is dangerous talk. Many companiesglobal bodiesacademics and even non-profits have spent decades advancing the case that responsible and sustainable business practices are in the long-term interests of companies and their shareholders. This commercial case is not easy to measure. But it’s crucial to recognise. Without it, corporate responsibility remains stuck as a side-show.

It is particularly maddening for this nonsense to come from HBR. Over the years, the publication has brought us Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s world-famous Creating Shared Value; Stuart Hart’s landmark “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World” (1997); and much more besides.

Yet this month’s “Big Idea” suggests that “business results” from CSR initiatives “should be a spillover, not their reason for being”.

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