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Dave Stangis on the past and future of CSR

October 27, 2009

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Dave Stangis is the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at the Campbell Soup Company.

Dave Stangis is the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at the Campbell Soup Company.

Yesterday we heard from Dave Stangis at the Campbell Soup Company on driving CSR inside companies. Today we’ll look at Dave’s outlook on the CSR field – how things have or haven’t changed, the relevancy of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and the proper role of business in society.

Q:  It’s possible to trace the roots of the current shape of the CSR field many decades ago, but to me it really took shape in the mid- to late-nineties – right at the time you were at Intel. As a trailblazer in the field, what changes have surprised you as you’ve watched CSR develop? Alternatively, do you routinely see something that needs to be changed?

Sometimes what surprises me most is not what has changed, but what hasn’t.  I’ve seen some tremendous progress across a number of companies in a variety of sectors in the ability to both measure and communicate CSR and sustainability strategies.  The levels of reporting have grown more sophisticated.  So have all the various audiences that are working on the CSR and sustainability agenda – whether those are internal CSR leaders or external stakeholders, NGOs and investors.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the death of what I call the business case. For years, that’s all I heard about – companies trying to make the business case for CSR and sustainability.  Thankfully, that debate seems to have died at least for large companies.

I’m confident there will be a time when CSR and sustainability are business functions just like finance, human resources, or quality.

Some of the things that surprise me because they haven’t changed are the conversations I still hear about CSR and sustainability as standalone or separate corporate initiatives.  Or, the fact that I still read stories that describe CSR as philanthropy.  The one big issue that I know is still a challenge for many companies is this concept of integration.  There are several things that will need to change from the way we educate our business students, to the way we measure company performance, to the issues that are relevant to boards of directors.  But I’m confident there will be a time when CSR and sustainability are business functions just like finance, human resources, or quality.  I may no longer have a job at that point, but it will happen.

Q: Only a few days ago, there was an online discussion on JustMeans about the relevance of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Some commentators noted that the DJSI is a low-bar and that there are other indexes that are more rigorous – most notably the FTSE4Good.  Is the DJSI relevant?

Without pitting one ranking, list, investment screen or reporting framework against another I can say from firsthand experience that the Dow Jones Sustainability Index is more than relevant.  There are probably 100 different what I will call tools in the marketplace to measure or judge the performance of CSR and sustainability.  Some work well, some don’t.  Some are more cumbersome than others.  And perhaps most importantly some can be used to drive organizational behavior better than others.  I have used the FTSE4Good framework as well as the Dow Jones sustainability Index and frankly tens of other tools in the marketplace to help drive awareness, increase competency, build enlistment, and ultimately improve performance.

Q: CSR, in a large part, seems to be a debate about the proper role of businesses in society. What’s your take on what are legitimate expectations of companies acting in society? At what point do the expectations creep beyond the scope of what businesses should be doing?

This is another interesting question that I think has to be looked at from the perspective of the stakeholder.  Businesses may think they define their role in society, but I can tell you that they don’t.  Society sets its expectations for the role of business.  These expectations change over time and they vary by geography and sector.  Our job is to understand and find ways to link the ever-growing demands on business to our core business advantage.

Or, businesses can look at the emerging role they have in society as part of their long-term planning process.  Businesses that come to grips with the situation and put it to work in their innovation pipeline will without doubt be more successful over the long term.

Do businesses get asked to take on challenges that are sometimes outside of their core business advantage?  Of course.  Businesses can try to take on every challenge the world has to offer and in that case make very little measurable impact.  Or, businesses can look at the emerging role they have in society as part of their long-term planning process.  Businesses that come to grips with the situation and put it to work in their innovation pipeline will without doubt be more successful over the long term.

This is exactly where using a lens of CSR and sustainability can create a competitive advantage.

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