Deakin's industry collaborations: Australian companies are lagging when it comes to CSR

Dr Colin Higgins, in his role as Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable & Responsible Organisations (CSaRO), was invited to write a foreword for the 2014 State of CSR Survey report released by Australian CSR think-tank the Australian Centre for CSR.

The 2014 State of CSR survey – the eight annual survey of its type – found Australian companies have stalled in their response to corporate social responsibility. Perhaps because of the economic situation, or perhaps because of ambiguity about environmental issues at a political level – Australian companies are ‘sticking to their knitting’ when it comes to fronting up to social and environmental issues.

There’s a lot of talk about leadership when it comes to CSR and sustainability – businesses display their leadership credentials in their sustainability reports, business associations advocate that voluntary guidelines and principles-based approaches to change provide the best scope for leadership, and governments strut the world seeking to show leadership in addressing sustainability challenges.

But where is the evidence of this leadership, in practice? Where is the action, and what does it look like?

What about leadership of the big challenges – the ‘anxiety of our time?

It is encouraging to see that the need for action resonates widely across all sectors of the community.

As years of ACCSR’s State of CSR surveys have shown – the need for action is well understood, and we know plenty about what needs to be done.

This year’s survey, however, shows very little in the way of leadership – by anyone – of the big sustainability challenges.

Sure, businesses are doing a good job of getting their houses in order – they are responsive to regulatory demands, they are promoting diversity in the workplace, investing in systems to reduce waste, and they’re striving to improve supply chain policies – but leadership is not just about operational impacts.

In the context of the big, difficult sustainability challenges, it is doubtful that most of the priorities identified by CSR professionals in this latest report would make much difference.

What is needed is innovative thinking and strong leadership.

Report after report from well-respected and leading international bodies are unequivocal in their assessment of what’s needed.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, there is a need for far-reaching action across a range of interconnected social, environmental and economic issues – and across all the sectors of the community.

The big issues – those at the pointy end of our relationship with the planet – are not the ‘low hanging fruit’.

They are issues of economic inequality and the environmental impacts associated with the very poor (and the very rich); genuine international, inter-sector and inter-governmental action on labour conditions in the supply-chain – including a broad debate about what constitutes a ‘living wage’; committed engagement around developing the type of trading, regulatory and tax structures that send appropriate price signals that enable managers to restructure their industrial activity.

These issues are not new – but the same imperatives keep surfacing.

Less than two months ago the IPCC handed down its fifth assessment on climate change – the message was simple.

We need to act now in order to avert irreversible damage.

My criticism is not meant to say that business should be tackling the challenges alone – or that the business community is somehow duplicitous in how it is approaching CSR.

But, it is time to renew the agenda, and to consider how meaningful change can be enabled to induce the sort of behaviour that is needed.

If CSR is failing to drive necessary change, what needs to happen?

As a management educator this year’s ACCSR report is a wake-up call for me in how we educate the next generation of leaders and how we ensure that new, integrated thinking pervades the business.

As a management researcher, I need to reconsider how academic thinking and theorising genuinely makes a difference to business practice.

More information.

Dr Colin Higgins
MBA Director

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