Why Direct Philanthropy Isn’t Enough for Environmental CSR

CSR is corporate social responsibility.

A company's sense of responsibility towards the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates.

The Business Dictionary

What is Environmental CSR?

The Giving Machine website uses Unilever as an example of what environmental CSR can look like.

Back in 2014, Unilever started compressing deodorant cans managing to cut the carbon footprint of each aerosol spray by 25%.

This change was at no inconvenience to the consumer but meant that Unilever could transport more cans on each lorry, which meant there were fewer vehicles on the road and therefore, reduced traffic emissions. It’s one example of a win-win situation as it both reduces manufacturing costs whilst being better for the environment.

Unilever is an interesting example but environmental CSR can often be much smaller with a company’s focus on reducing its carbon footprint through recycling, reducing waste or energy usage.

Some companies might donate money to environmental charities or commit to carbon off-setting flights or planting trees.

Businesses might also allow staff paid time off to pick litter or volunteer with a charity.

A gym could install devices that harness human-generated power in order to supply buildings and communities with electricity.

Environmental CSR is also good for a company’s image.

What’s the Difference Between Charity and Philanthropy?

Often the terms charity and philanthropy are used interchangeably but there is a subtle difference.

Giving charity is a temporary solution to a problem: giving £1 to a homeless person or buying them a coffee or helping them secure a bed in a shelter for the evening. Your actions will help them in that moment but it doesn’t solve their homelessness nor does it address the societal problem of being homeless.

Philanthropy is more strategic; it aims to achieve wider and long-term social change. A philanthropist might look at the reasons behind homelessness to try and address the underlying causes.

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.


Examples of Companies Using Environmental CSR

Lego is investing $150 million to reduce waste and to become more sustainable. It’s already reduced packaging on its products and is aiming to use 100% renewable energy by 2020.

According to the Digital Marketing Institute, The New Belgium Brewing Company in the US produces “18% of its own electricity through solar panels and wastewater. It also contributes to bicycle and eco-focused organizations.”

In 2015, IKEA said it was investing 1 billion euros towards becoming more sustainable which is a phenomenal amount and, as pointed out by All Business, puts actual countries to shame, many of whom have pledged far less to the UN Green Climate Fund.

The Telegraph refers to a barristers that went entirely paperless which not only made them more eco-friendly but which could save them £350,000 a year.

The Problem of Philanthropy as Environmental CSR

It can be difficult to think of philanthropy as problematic.

Everything we do to help the environment has to be a good thing, right?

Profit Comes First

One of the biggest problems is that companies can use environmental CSR as a PR exercise, as a placation to shareholders or customers or as a smokescreen.

Some companies are turning over billions of pounds in industries that are either partly or directly responsible for the wildfires burning in Australia, for melting icecaps in the Artic and for flooding cities in Indonesia.

100 companies in the world are responsible for 70% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Most of those companies will have environmental CSR policies in place.

So can CSR be taken seriously when companies are making token gestures and investments for a problem that they’re not only causing but also profiting from.

But there’s the issue: direct philanthropy isn’t enough for environmental CSR because profit comes first. Unfortunately, often what’s good for the shareholders and CEOs is rarely good for the planet.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

CSR shouldn’t be a conciliatory gesture created for good PR, but it’s too easy for big businesses to look as if they’re doing their part without actually doing very much at all.

We could look to the Government to force businesses into changing, becoming more realistic with CSR but that’s not without its issues, either.

All 100 companies that are listed as being responsible for 70% of carbon dioxide emissions are backed by governments.

Walking Away from CSR

Another issue is that companies can abandon their CSR policy at will.

Writing on the Undark website, Darien Alexander Williams writes about the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient City Program.

Set up in 2013, the program was meant to help mitigate urban growth and climate change. $160 million was spent starting projects around the world but in 2019, the program was closed. No fanfare, no real explanation as to why.

Williams questions the ‘wisdom’ of relying on charitable organisations to ‘fund resilience work – particularly those that were chiefly responsible for the problems to begin with’.

Picking and Choosing

CSR policies are chosen by the companies themselves.

Unsurprisingly, it allows them to pick initiatives with the least impact on their bottom line, that look good in brochures or what’s most palatable to shareholders. Corporate responsibility will always put profit ahead of environmental concerns.

But the problem with an approach that lets business define corporate responsibility is that it is not grounded in a set of principles about what it means to be a responsible business. Ultimately, CSR is whatever companies want it to be – and often, what is most convenient.

Joanne Bauer writing for Open Democracy

The Failure of Self-Regulation

Volkswagen showed that CSR can count for little in business

The company deliberately set out to design a means to circumvent emissions control—a stratagem known at the highest levels—with the aim of giving the company an unfair advantage over its competitors that made it the world’s number one car maker, in large part on the basis of its supposedly environmentally friendly cars; meanwhile it was poisoning the planet. Volkswagen did all it could to hide the fact that its diesel engines were highly contaminating. How can the head of CSR deny he knew anything about what was going on? Either that person wasn’t doing their job, or they were colluding. The conclusion can only be that for Volkswagen, CSR is a marketing exercise

Enrique Dans in Forbes

It’s heartening to see so many small businesses commit to eco-friendly and carbon-neutral policies and this should be applauded and encouraged but small businesses aren’t the biggest contributors to climate change.

How can we expect more than token philanthropic gestures by big corporations holding buying and selling power over people, politicians and economies.

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