Will CSR survive the bust?

Today wasn’t the best day for an investment bank to seek coverage of a big corporate social responsibility initiative. But Lehman’s collapse didn’t stop Goldman Sachs from going ahead with the long-planned announcement of new partners for its “10,000 Women” scheme, which aims to give business and management training to women in less-developed countries.

The public demand for stories about the caring, sharing side of investment bankers is unlikely to be huge right now. But bankers aren’t necessarily the only turn-off in “caring capitalism” ventures these days. I’ve been wondering for a while whether tougher economic conditions will lead to a broader backlash against the CSR industry on the grounds of cost.

What started me thinking about this was a column in the FT a few weeks ago by Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics and a former boss of the CBI employers’ body. It was about how politicians needed to be reminded of some recessionary truths.

He suggested that government action to promote equality in the workplace would be difficult to sustain because of economic weakness:

Desirable initiatives to promote diversity and extend working lives, which have been easy to promote when the labour market was tight, will be a much tougher proposition from now on. There is a business case for diversity, the government tells us. That may well be true in the longer run, but the costs tend to come first.

I suspect there are lots of Milton Friedman-reading managers in the private sector who grumblingly tolerated CSR programmes during the boom and would now love to get rid of them on similar cost grounds.

Instead of throwing the money changers out of the temple, it would be a case of throwing the CSR priests out of the marketplace. But that would be a pretty dumb move at a time when the public mood is for more accountability and regulation, not less.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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