Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Social Engagement

by | Mar 3, 2010

gershon, david, empowerment instituteOur civilization’s central organizing project is to transform our adverse impact on the climate system. Scientists tell us that we must act now to mitigate the most severe effects of climate change; that we have a very small window before we reach an irreversible tipping point, after which the planet will become inhospitable for human life. According to Jim Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist, “we have at most 10 years to fundamentally alter the trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions and take significant actions to reduce them” in order to avoid “disastrous effects.” Haiti provides a glimmer of what such “disastrous effects” might look like, particularly in the developing world.

To accomplish this transformation requires a boldness, innovation and speed unlike anything humanity has ever faced. Of all the institutions on our planet, none is more capable of furthering this rapid transformation than business because of its unique capability to marshal resources and scale up innovative change.

There is also an increasing expectation that business will take a leadership role on climate change mitigation. Summarizing a recent study by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Director Dan Esty states: “It’s clear that the public is not waiting for the government to take the lead. Americans no longer think it’s entirely the domain of government to solve environmental problems. They also expect companies to step up and address climate change.”

Along with the moral imperative and expectation of the public, there is also a strong business case for taking action. A Cone study states: “More than ever, people want to know about companies’ corporate citizenship efforts, and they will form opinions of a company’s brand and reputation based on those efforts. Sophisticated companies will move beyond merely writing checks and doing short-term cause-related promotions to creating deeper social commitments. These activities should be long-term, credible and involve customers, employees and communities.”

Business over the past two decades has been learning how to operate in a more environmentally and socially sustainable manner. The outgrowth of this profound transformation is the corporate social responsibility movement. CSR has now become the new baseline for corporate citizenship. But as times change, the role of corporate citizenship must change as well. With the moral imperative for taking action brought about by climate change, business must now raise its level of play and move beyond corporate social responsibility – “I minimize the harm that I do” to corporate social engagement – “I maximize the good that I do.” To step into this new paradigm, business must become proficient in furthering transformative social change.

The table stakes to be minimally credible as a corporate citizen around climate change is robust and timely reduction of its carbon footprint – corporate social responsibility. But then it must use this moral authority to encourage its multiple stakeholders to do the same – corporate social engagement. These stakeholders include its employees, communities, customers and supply chain. A company that makes this wholehearted commitment I call a “Cool Corporate Citizen.” The most progressive socially responsible companies have begun to dip their toes in the water around this type of commitment, but with rapidly accelerating climate change, it is now beholden upon them to take the plunge. When they do—as we saw in the corporate social responsibility movement—other companies will follow until a Cool Corporate Citizen becomes the new baseline for doing business in the age of climate change.

The benefits that will accrue to a company from becoming a Cool Corporate Citizen are many. They include increasing customer loyalty, attracting and retaining employees, developing employee carbon literacy and morale to help drive and sustain a company-wide carbon reduction strategy, developing employee leadership skills, building strong partnerships with local government, community organizations and other businesses, and strengthening community visibility and goodwill.

It is time for business to become part of the global warming solution. Our planet’s future, and therefore each businesses future, depends on it. And no one is better positioned to lead this charge then the corporate social responsibility movement – the social change agents and conscience of business.

David Gershon, founder and CEO of Empowerment Institute, is a leading authority on behavior-change and large-system transformation. He applies his expertise to issues requiring community, organizational, and societal change, from low carbon lifestyles, livable neighborhoods, and sustainable communities to organizational talent development, corporate social engagement, and cultural transformation. Gershon is the author of eleven books, including his recently published Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World, and Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds. He co-directs Empowerment Institute’s School for Transformative Social Change and consults with companies wishing to develop Cool Corporate Citizen initiatives. He can be reached at

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