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April 25, 2007

Corporate Social Responsibility: Perfect Playing Field for Tipping Points and Cognitive Frames
    by Bill Baue

The Lifeworth review of CSR developments in 2006 fuses two popular concepts on social beliefs and change to promote personal, corporate, and societal transformation. -- Since 2003, Lifeworth, a Switzerland-based corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultancy promoting personal and systemic social change, has published a review of the previous year's CSR-related developments. This year's edition, Tipping Frames: The Lifeworth Review of 2006, does much more than simply rehash events--it advances a theoretical analysis of the mechanisms whereby CSR creates change. As the title suggests, the review fuses two popular notions--tipping points (explosive proliferation in beliefs or actions, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point) and cognitive frames (how concepts are framed determines their uptake, popularized by George Lakoff's book, Donít Think of an Elephant.)

Please support
our sponsorsIn the introduction, Lifeworth founder Jem Bendell focuses on climate change, first noting that it "tipped" in 2006, shifting from lingering skepticism to widespread acceptance--it "has begun to be understood as a humanitarian emergency," according to Dr. Bendell. Climate change also represents a powerful "frame."

"Some frames are deeper than others, in the sense that a change in them has cascading implications for a range of other assumptions and beliefs," Dr. Bendell explains. "Climate change is 'deep' in this sense, as recognizing it as real and urgent means we are challenged to question our assumptions about current forms of economic development being 'progress.'"

"Hence 'tipping frames' not only describes the process of an altered frame going mainstream, but also those frames that, once altered, lead to other frames in society reaching a tipping point," he adds. "Those of us who seek to serve systemic transformations for a better world, as described in the Lifeworth Review of last year, need to better understand this process of tipping frames."

Climate change is a prime example of how CSR is a perfect playing field for tipping frames, because it resides at the intersection of business, government, and civil society--"As Gladwell explains, it is through people connecting different social networks that ideas spread rapidly." CSR also resides at the locus of areas of deep public concern that form our primary frames, such as environment, health, poverty, and human rights. And by its very nature, CSR seeks to reframe business and activism from how they are traditionally understood as separate spheres into a common arena

The introduction tees up the rest of the report, which is broken down into 12 essays, three for each quarter of last year. Some essays shoot far beyond the scope of the intro, addressing issues from the co-opting of Fair Trade by mega-companies in the first quarter to the rise of the modern global slave trade in the fourth quarter. A thread running throughout the report is the globalization of CSR, with essays focusing on India, China, and Vietnam.

However, some essays tie directly back to the intro. For example, "Consuming Truths" focuses on "sustainable consumption," discussing how "finding new pathways for social development that are sufficiently resource-light to be possible for a majority of the world's population over the long term, rather than the minority of a few generations of middle- to upper-class consumers, is a pro-poor vision."

The challenge of sustainable consumption is to tip the frame--in other words, to transform the very way consumption is currently understood as divorced from its impact on earth and on those who live in poverty as a result of over-consumption by wealthier classes. The temptation is to merely tilt the frame. Dr. Bendell cites George Lakoff's example of "economic growth" as a perfect cognitive frame for business as usual, as it derives power from implying the accumulation of money. The problem is, this frame veils the social and environmental costs of economic growth.

"Much analysis suggests that a certain amount of decoupling of economic growth with resource consumption is possible, but not entirely, and so only a small amount of economic growth will probably be sustainable in the long term," Dr. Bendell points out. "The challenge is to therefore refocus on what we want from economy, as a society."

"Terms like 'green growth' would not challenge but actually reinforce the dominance of the economic growth frame, as it implies green economic growth," he adds. "Instead, we should articulate a new vision of 'societal growth'--the increase in well-being of all life affected by a society."

This proposed term may or may not solve the framing issue, as it implies a continuing increase in population, which carries its own set of social and environmental strains.

Stepping back, the ultimate success of CSR may be measured by its ability to shift our world from secular markets to moral markets. This does not mean to say that markets must get religion. Rather, markets must incorporate and take account of the ethical impacts and implications of business actions and transactions.

"If there is a silver lining to the clouds of climate change, it might be in the way it wakes us up to our moral responsibilities as part of life on Earth," Dr. Bendell concludes.

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