The Moxie Sessions: The way of the sooty orca: why business needs to move beyond bumper sticker CSR

Vaughn Davis
Ākina Foundation CEO Alex Hannant

Judging by the black smoke belching from its exhaust as I follow it up Khyber Pass, the SUV in front of me is powered by coal rather than diesel. Every time its driver hits the gas the engine responds with a smoke signalled cry for help, or at least a long-overdue injector clean. But then the lights turn red, and as we both sit idling at the intersection the smoke clears just enough for me to see something that makes it all OK: a spare wheel cover with a cute picture of an orca and a reassuring slogan: Suzuki Likes Nature. 

Now I’m sure at some level Suzuki really does like nature, and to be fair most Suzukis I see seem to emit nothing more than sweet fresh air and good vibrations. But for many companies, the soot-covered orca symbolises the predominant approach to corporate social responsibility: well meaning, quite possibly making a difference, but ultimately little more than a bumper sticker. 

While having a CSR policy is these days as common and as trendy as ISO 9001 certification was in the 1990s, a growing number of businesses are asking whether a bumper sticker is enough, and whether a better path to sustainable growth lies with placing social purpose at the heart of a business, rather than on the surface.

To lead our discussion, we were joined by three guests, each with their own perspective on social enterprise. Alex Hannant is CEO of the Ākina Foundation – an organisation devoted to build and support social businesses in New Zealand. Alex, you could pretty much say, fell into the cauldron as a baby (if you’ll pardon the Asterix reference) and is a strong advocate of social enterprise as a model for economic growth. Jade Tang co-founded and leads creative agency Curative, where her team pays the bills by working almost entirely on social enterprises and not-for-profit projects. The odd one out, and quite certainly the best paid among the three, was Vodafone New Zealand’s HR Director Antony Welton.

So what, exactly, is a social enterprise? For Alex Hannant the bar is set pretty high. Shaving off a few dollars to buy schoolbooks for homeless dolphins doesn’t cut it. For him it means a business in complete service of solving a social or environmental problem.

A good example, albeit a pretty long plane ride from where we were meeting, is US company TOMS Shoes. The shoes TOMS sells aren’t anything special; if it weren’t for the famous logo you wouldn’t look twice at most of their styles. What sets TOMS apart is that every time you buy a pair of shoes, the company sends another pair to a child in a developing country. The charity side of TOMS isn’t just a bolt-on – it’s the reason the company exists. (It also generates word of mouth that has it on its way to becoming a global footwear brand with an advertising spend of zero, against Nike’s $2.8 billion.)

Closer to home, Malcolm Rands’ ecostore was born out of a desire not to furnish its founder with a fancy house and a flash car but to raise funds for various community projects Malcolm was involved with. Today, every (sugar-based-plastic-biodegradable) bottle of dishwashing liquid he sells helps realise that goal. 

Sitting in its enormous headquarters just across Victoria Park from ecostore HQ, Vodafone could hardly be called a social enterprise. But it’s HR Director Antony Welton’s second role in the company that’s convinced him that social responsibility isn’t just a bolt-on. As chairman of the Vodafone Foundation he’s responsible for overseeing partnerships with community organisations around the country, and making sure a good chunk of cash goes their way. Proof of Vodafone’s commitment to the communities it operates in, says Antony, is that a foundation is set up at the same time as the company itself in every country where Vodafone operates: 28 at last count. The results, he says, have been transformative, especially for the staff working with groups and individuals the Foundation supports. 

For Curative co-founder Jade Tang, social enterprise isn’t about revolution, it's about making the world a little bit better with every job the agency does. Curative’s website features clients spanning government, charities and startups with a common thread, Jade says, of making the world a better place. It’s no Saatchi & Saatchi but Curative pays its way and currently employs seven people and is fast becoming the go-to agency for community & not-for-profit organisations, philanthropists, government partnerships and social enterprise ventures.

So if there’s a clear societal and economic upside, how does New Zealand foster and build the social enterprise sector? While there were plenty of specific suggestions in the room (cut taxes!), the common conclusion was that trying to introduce a social conscience to businesses that had none was unlikely to succeed, at least not quickly. A faster path to success seems to be identifying existing players in the social purpose sector, such as Ākina, Wellington’s Enspiral co-working space, collaborative decision making platform Loomio and more, and supporting them in the same way we support tech startups – with advice, mentoring and investment where necessary. 

Ten years ago – back when that Suzuki’s engine was probably last serviced – it might have been tempting to write social enterprise off as very much a fringe phenomenon. Today, businesses, consumers and investors are beginning to take it more seriously. Even the government is in on the act, releasing a position statement on the sector, pointing out the upsides for “societal issues, new employment opportunities, and sustainable income generation.”

For businesses with social change at their hearts, then, the future’s looking good – for profit as well as the planet. Bumper sticker CSR, though, just won’t cut it.

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at themoxiesessions.co.nz, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.


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