Jo Confino: CSR is dead

Interview with Jo Confino, Executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies. Jo Confino has moderated the Leaders for Sustainable Business conference organized in mid-May by ARC Romania. (Picture: Andrei Pungovschi / Dincolo de profit.)

You said in the conference that CSR is dead. Why?

It’s just that CSR is the wrong term. Corporate Social Responsibility came up with the idea that business has responsibilities just in the social sector. That was very much so whether it related to community engagement, working with local schools and volunteering. In sustainability is the ability of a company to sustain itself over the long term. That means its social, environmental as well as economic impacts. The whole point of today’s world is the interconnection. If you just pick one element of the system without understanding the rest of it then you’d never create change. It’s not about a company’s social responsibility (CSR); it is actually about how does society sustain itself and what is the role of the operations within. If you only measure one aspect, you’d never understand the whole.

When you moderated the debate in the Leaders of Sustainable Business event, there were five men and only one woman on the floor.

Yes. And most of them were foreign men, only one was Romanian.

That’s correct. If you’d think of a nice thing to do, of a good thing to do and of a must-do to have more women CEOs, what would you pick?

You have to understand that the reason for not having more women up there is that they are not respected.  When women are respected and considered equal, they bring such extraordinary skills to business, which are different from men. It’s not purely gender; it’s the feminine and the masculine. If those things are not balanced, you get into problems like anywhere in your daily life because decisions are not made in a balanced way. Why aren’t women more respected? Because we live in a male patriarchal society where people make assumptions that are wrong. You have to question assumptions. The idea that diversity is not important is ridiculous because actually we live in a diverse society. If you are not reflecting that diversity then you are not reflecting the society, therefore you cannot be truly successful. It is pretty damn obvious.

You can ask me: why isn’t that happening? There is an imbalance in empowering women. People need to express their power. It’s also about women recognizing their power and pushing for change as well.

Some of the speakers talked about cooperation / collaboration. You also referred to the need of having public sector, private sector, NGOs and academia working together to make sure that sustainability is pushed forward. NGOs by default should be the watchdog. Provided an NGO offers consultancy services to companies, how independent can it be and how much freedom would it have in playing its rightful role?

This is a problem, and it’s an opportunity problem. Firstly, it’s really important that NGOs and businesses work together because they have different skills. But there needs to be an ecosystem of change agents. You need NGOs on the outside, where they can be much more critical on business, and you also need NGOs that are working more directly with business. The problem is when those two join forces. When as an NGO you work with or for a business, you can be co-opted to an extent. Collaboration is really important, but one always needs the outsiders, needs the critique. The risk is that at the moment when pro-active NGOs work with the business, the question “Do they maintain as much independence?” comes up. Are they still able to attack business, to campaign against business while being a part of the solution? You need a balance to get it right.

Read more on Jo Confino’s views on sustainability reporting here.