Quantifying CSR: Just How Big is the BP Oil Spill?
Yesterday evening, one of my friends asked me if it is possible to differentiate CSR from greenwash simply by listening to what companies say about themselves. It's a valid question, and I acknowledged that a company with a strong PR department will indeed often be more recognizable that a company with comparable CSR but minimal PR investment. Still, I explained, the field has come far enough that there are people capable of discerning fluff from quantifiable facts and results, even in spite of the efforts of major PR agencies like Ogilvy and Edelman.
But how is an external entity supposed to evaluate the accuracy of facts offered up by companies? The BP oil spill has shed some light on this very important CSR question. Over the past couple of weeks, some fascinating articles have come out describing the different types of methods that can be used to measure the spill. Unfortunately, each has its drawbacks, which is why there is still some uncertainty about the precise scope of the problem. As a New York Times article from last Thursday discussed, satellite imagery from overhead and ultrasound-like machines measuring the flow rate from hot-water vents in the ocean floor are two methods being used, and with billions of dollars at stake, BP would have good reason to advocate for whichever offers the more conservative estimate. The current estimate of 5,000 barrels a day (equivalent to 210,000 gallons a day) was supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of this figure.
Media outlets are also trying to place their stamp on how the BP oil spill is understood by the masses. A wonderful piece in Infosthetics highlights a time-driven interactive map in the New York Times, a Gulf Leak Meter offered up by PBS, and an animated infographics movie from Al-Jazeera. And since human beings seem to be love putting measurements into terms they can understand, I also offer you a graphic illustrating that 5,000 barrels a day could fill up half of a San Francisco Victorian row house.
The implications of difficulties in measurement are significant and a critical tool in the sleazy part of CSR toolkits. Certainly, controversy about quantification methods can work in the favor of a company in BP's position. How can we put a price on a clean-up that we can't quantify? And more importantly, how do you see questions of measurement being resolved in this situation?
Photo credit: Hullett Jones