UK: BOOK REVIEWS - NICE BUT MISGUIDED IDEAS.

UK: BOOK REVIEWS - NICE BUT MISGUIDED IDEAS. - Doing Well while Doing Good.

by Tom Lloyd
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Doing Well while Doing Good.

By L Lawrence Embley; Prentice Hall; 252pp; £17.95.

The world is not changed by those who see things more clearly but by those who feel things more deeply. That was one of the thoughts I was left with after reading L Lawrence Embley's book.

As the initial suggests, this is an American book, and as the title suggests, it is about what has come to be known as corporate social responsibility. Having written two books on this subject myself I am very interested in it. And since I know that the US is in many ways more advanced than the UK in the development of corporate social responsibility, I always find American books on the subject fascinating.

Embley's contribution is not particularly well written, its structure is untidy and its style is too sentimental for my taste. It also invites an intimacy between reader and author that seems presumptuous. Yet it is redeemed by two qualities. It is full of the author's passions and enthusiasms for his subject, and it is packed with facts and anecdotes about the American corporate social responsibility 'scene'. These could be extremely useful to any British executives who might be trying to persuade their directors of the need to take the subject seriously.

Nevertheless, I believe that I can see the future for corporate social responsibility more clearly than Embley. He is one of those evangelists that America has the curious habit of producing, like rabbits out of a hat, when bandwagons start to roll. By his own account, he did well during the '80s as an independent strategy consultant. But then he was converted. His road to Damascus was a New Jersey beach full of used hypodermic syringes. The denial of responsibility that these objects demonstrated horrified him, and he embarked on a career that has made him one of America's experts in cause-related marketing.

Yet he misunderstands what 'corporate social responsibility' is all about. He thinks it is about a change of heart on the part of companies - a wholesale conversion of businessmen and women to a new corporate purpose that is essentially altruistic. He criticises companies for projecting a social responsibility message in their advertising campaigns, while not actually being socially responsible.

'These companies', he complains, 'use the trend conditions of consumers supporting corporations that are doing well while doing good, but their emphasis is only on doing well.' These are the corporate cheats, according to Embley, the cynical exploiters of the New Age concerns that are spreading like a benign virus through American society.

In my view, it is precisely these self-interested firms that are leading the way in the development of more responsible corporate behaviour. Companies that base their strategies on altruism will fail. The business world is being changed, not by companies that put emphasis on doing good, but by those that understand how the New Age is changing their competitive environment.

Altruism is a meaningless concept for companies. They have a more prosaic purpose, namely the maximisation of shareholder value. The business system cannot work any other way. The success of such cause-related firms as The Body Shop is not evidence that altruism works, but rather that consumers have psychological and spiritual needs that it can be pro-fitable to cater for.

I have no doubt that The Body Shop's strategies were born of altruism, or that its culture is sustained by it. The important thing is that others can see such strategies working, and can emulate them without partaking of the missionary zeal; without subordinating their commercial interests to high-sounding principles that all too often smack of moral elitism. It is the strategy embedded in the principles that matters.

Even though they are mistaken, the passion and enthusiasms of zealots like Embley have a role to play in realising the substance - if not the spirit - of their evangelical message. Embley's book could succeed in inspiring companies to do the right things, though possibly for the wrong reasons.

His anecdotes are provocative. I particularly like the one about John Deere, the American tractor company which made a name for itself in the Great Depression of the 1930s, by not repossessing its vehicles from destitute farmers. John Deere's customers remember that kindness to this day. British bankers should take note.

Tom Lloyd is a consultant and writer.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today