Doing Things Differently, or Doing Different Things?

RiftThere's an invisible rift in the CSR world. It's a philosophical rift that manifests itself in how we use energy and generate emissions. It profoundly proscribes the "solution space" we allow ourselves to reduce our energy consumption. And I think it would be good for each of us, but particularly CSR directors, to articulate their positions on this one.

The rift is between those who feel that we can address our rampant energy consumption by simply doing things differently, and those who feel that doing things differently is not enough. That we have to do different things.

A recent blog entry on Sightline, a non-profit think tank here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, highlighted this point. The blog addresses an Audi car ad showing a rain--drenched bicyclist negotiating traffic, a sweaty commuter getting jostled in a bus, and other scenes of individual sacrifice for the greater good. Then it shows an Audi diesel (getting 42 MPG, or so they say) robustly passing another, less stylish, car (vegetable oil powered) on a scenic mountain curve. The tag line is, "Many people are doing their part. Some have more fun doing it."

This caused a lot of laughter amongst some, and a lot of fulmination amongst others. The dividing line was - you got it - whether or not you believed that we can overcome our energy addiction by doing things differently (driving more efficient cars), or that we had to do different things (bicycle, mass transit, biofuels, etc.)

So, what does this have to do with CSR?

I think the next wave of CSR is forming. That wave will involve those firms that not only strive to minimize their footprints and sustain their communities, but will also be proactive forces to do different things altogether.

Consider this: Seventy-five percent of all energy used worldwide is consumed by commercial, industrial, and corporate entities. In short, the world's energy use doesn't change unless and until the corporations do. And unless they do, we will not wean ourselves off our energy addiction without a steep and destructive downward spiral.

So what does the next wave of CSR look like? It shifts the focus from "doing things differently" to "doing different things." What might this include? The "big box" hardware stores can open in-store repair shops and phase in a requirement on appliance manufacturers that their refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers be reparable on some deep level, saving the energy embedded in virgin steel. Electronics stores can do the same. Airlines and trucking firms can form partnerships with railroads (rather than fearfully isolating them) to form a more efficient network for passengers and cargo. (This is not unlike the way the airlines themselves have already formed intercontinental alliances, passing business to each other to their mutual profitability.) Manufacturers of all stripes can source parts and materials closer to their own facilities, maybe even setting up suppliers, recognizing that the price of energy used in global transport of parts is nowhere near the actual cost to our air and water.

In short, CSR will be used to drive corporate strategy to "do different things." Setting up this kind of CSR program will require real creative thinkers. It will separate the tinkerers from the true innovators.  This is not exclusive of profitability, though it might be a bit riskier at first. Still, it's a small risk compared to the unsustainable energy path we are now on. And the first step is to decide which side of the rift you are on - doing things differently or doing different things - and then going public with it.

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