OPINION – CSR creating our happy place: Pleasure, Purpose and Pride

Picture CSR as your corporate conscience – that little voice looking over your shoulder – reminding you of your evolving role in society and on the planet. We’ve written about the various faces of CSR in these pages this last year: philanthropy, crisis support; insurance against loss of license; and how institutional structures can be created and leaders cultivated for compliance. These are part of a global shift to posit CSR as a set of values to guide corporate ethics and operations.

Leanda Care

Honorary Advisor

Macau Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility in Greater China (MICSRGC)

Sovereign state success measures, political announcements and corporate results referring to GDP, economic growth, stock market movements and quarterly results constantly assert that financial success – that thing that often gets in the way of ethical operations – is an end point goal. Achieving heightened levels of these are not our purpose as statesmen have asserted over time: David Cameron – “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money” as UK established a program to track wellbeing; Angela Merkel – “We look at the stock exchange index or currencies on the news each morning and talk a lot about growth …, but we often don’t prioritize what is really most important to people”; Joseph Stiglitz – “GDP in the US has gone up every year except 2009, but most Americans are worse off than they were a third of a century ago”; and well-worn quote from Robert F. Kennedy – “The Gross National Product…measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

Once basic needs are met and a nation grows up, it is time to acknowledge wellbeing is found beyond monetary wealth; but crunching those numbers and constantly adding to them is a hard addiction to break. Economic outcomes are but one means toward wellbeing, but there are limits beyond which the benefits of growth are replaced by pathologies: elite accumulation and inequities; rampant consumerism and resource depletion; an obesity epidemic and nutritional deserts; an easy life and the highest rates ever of chronic and cardio-vascular diseases. 

The happiness literature says that wellbeing comes from a combination of a sense of pleasure, purpose and pride. These three human responses can each be guided by a shift in focus from wealth to wellbeing. Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson (1811) noted, “The happiness and prosperity of our citizens…is the only legitimate object of government.” We could well extend that to corporations. 

Pleasure (or joy) comes from connection, which Cathay acknowledges in their recent promotions – “our enduring mission has been to connect you to new people, places and experiences.” Pleasure is found in the interconnection with natural ecologies (other life) and each other. Along with a rude awakening to institutional systemic gaps and weaknesses, our grief for loss of connection with loved ones during the Covid crisis has robbed us of many of our joys. To a less visceral extent, the climate crisis too has started to change worldviews on humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and the planet. There is a growing quest for meaning through connection, to ourselves, our community and healthy ecologies. These worldviews are hopeful, empowering us to take up our rightful role as nurturers. 

Long have we been separate from and extractors of capital. We have not invested in the systems and ecologies that maintain meaning and wholeness for us. We can look to the journey of farmers who have transitioned from the chemical input model and extractive methods of industrial farming to regeneration and re-carbonisation of soils, who learn how to use the natural systems in farm management and land guardianship. They find farming fulfilling and joyful again. The epidemic of farmer suicide has been shown to subside once farmers retune themselves to their land and begin to see the rewards that come from working with nature rather than battling against the life within. So too, can corporations learn to retune to their communities. 

Purpose, the second happiness response, can be derived from living one’s values in achieving something meaningful; doing what is worthwhile. 

Companies have a purpose and were historically authorised to have a charter for a specific purpose. Once that narrowly defined purpose was no longer fulfilled the charter could be rescinded. No longer defined by purpose, companies now can mostly thank profitability for their longevity. 

The evolving conversation around CSR highlights that a company’s purpose must be broader than mere profitability. Similarly, dialogue around the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet has reframed the concept of sustainability: from longevity of the company, to ensuring that communities and the environment and natural resources are sustained and supported by the operations of the organisation so they can thrive, and not just survive for extractivistic purposes. In this way, companies find their own purpose in solving the wellbeing problems of people and the planet.  

Ordinarily, CSR mandates are seen as nudges, or even coercive methods to have companies direct attention to how the wider community benefits from their operations.  For follower companies they create an aspirational ceiling for doing good, and for others they allow a nominal floor for doing bad. 

For the leaders in CSR, it is not about giving more money, it’s about a mindset shift. It’s the manifestation of a corporate conscience; an integration of good citizenship into the corporate DNA. It is about corporations becoming part of the ecology of the community and land we live on, not separate from it, and certainly not extracting from it. Recently Macau professor, Carlos Noronha was quoted in the media, “It is difficult to capture the spirit and essence of CSR in terms of percentage [of revenue as taxation]…”. 

CSR is not a quantity item but a philosophy and morality, one that finds purpose in, and does not detract from, a community’s own ability to find pleasure, and achieve purpose and a sense of pride in one’s accomplishments.