This piece first appeared in The Washington Post.
For weeks people on both sides of the Atlantic have been speculating over who would lose his job first because of the BP spill — Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, or Tony Hayward, the oil company’s chief executive. Given last week’s initial progress in capping the well, I won’t try to name a favorite in that race. But I would like to suggest a third, inanimate, culprit: the cult of corporate social responsibility.
As crude poured into the Gulf of Mexico and the world economy struggled to recover from the financial crisis, corporate social responsibility might seem a perverse target. Surely we need more corporate responsibility, not less. But many of the business disasters of the past 24 months have been facilitated by the mini-industry of corporate social responsibility — known as CSR by those in the trade — a fetish encouraged by the philanthropies that feed off it and funded by the corporate executives who have found that it serves their bottom line.
Consider BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign. Before the spill transformed that slogan into a punch line for late-night comedians, Madison Avenue had lauded BP’s effort to position itself as the greenest fossil fuel producer: “Beyond Petroleum” won two PRWeek “campaign of the year” awards and a gold “Effie” from the American Marketing Association. Ogilvy, the firm that invented the slogan, still boasts of “Beyond Petroleum” as a successful “case study” on its Web site.
Or how about Goldman Sachs’s “10,000 Women” project? This initiative to organize and fund business education for 10,000 “underserved” women around the world is the limousine of CSR drives: smart, innovative and absolutely in tune with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky” zeitgeist.
But the gulf oil spill and the financial crisis have taught us, rather brutally, that the heart of the relationship between business and society doesn’t lie with the charitable deeds companies do in their off-hours but whether they are doing their day jobs in ways that help — or hurt — the rest of us. While BP was winning plaudits for being the first oil company to accept global warming as a scientific fact, the old-school Texas oilmen at ExxonMobil were unfashionably unapologetic about their core mission: to produce oil. Chastened by the Exxon Valdez disaster, however, they also became religious about safety standards. With hindsight, that attention to safety turns out to have had much greater social value than any number of creative CSR drives.