On Thought Leaders, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sustainability

By Orlando Roncesvalles (January, 2020)

There’s an unfair amount of cheesy buzzwords out there.

It hit me one day when I came across something called “Thought Leaders.” My first reaction was to ask, “Are you kidding?” – addressed to no one in particular. When I think I’m thinking, I’m being me, moi. I’m doing the Cartesian thing (you know the drill: Cogito, ergo sum). Anyone without a working brain is just a rock, if not a pebble (but a glistening grain of sand can still capture the human imagination). This is a long-winded way of saying that if someone is “thought-leading” you or me, he’s not making sense. Never mind that Wikipedia defines “.. a thought leader [as] an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field .. whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”

One commentator once cynically described a thought leader as “.. a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts” (David Brooks of The New York Times, way back in 2013). In short, a thought leader is an intellectually bankrupt idea wanting to be paid big bucks. How can you be thinking if your puny brain is being led by its nostrils? That wait staff in Brooks’s satire was the smart one, if poorly paid.

Pretty much the same can be said of something called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). A somewhat extreme view, usually attributed to Milton Friedman, the economist, is that CSR is, like thought leadership, somewhat of an oxymoron. It’s neither social nor responsible. It isn’t needed at all and wouldn’t even exist without a budget. That budget comes from excess profits. Economists understand that Friedman saw the problem as a lack of competition. The textbook says that with easy exit and entry, the long-run profit is just enough to compensate shareholders, even as corporations use the most efficient technology to minimize costs and sell products at reasonable (affordable) prices.

The other (also somewhat extreme) view is that CSR is a worthwhile cause, like climate change. We need to restrain corporate “greed” through signaling devices (“My product is green or organic, not produced by slave or child labor, and I’m an NGO-certified good guy”), or by outright regulation. In this public relations ecosystem, CSR validates monopolistic pricing and ultra-high CEO compensation, or it runs on the fiction that regulators cannot be bought. Is there a middle ground? I admit to not knowing, though I believe that Friedman is right if corporations dealt only with private goods (those without negative externalities like pollution). In a world where corporations produce public goods or bads, governmental regulation must be brought in, although this leads to a problem of how to prevent something called regulatory capture. Perhaps that’s just too difficult a problem, especially in countries run like pineapple republics where cozy relations between corporations and their regulators are an open secret.

Finally, I come to that bane of all banes. The word is “sustainability.” If something is not sustainable, it must be sinister and will, sooner than later, destroy our souls. Think of single-use plastic clogging the planet’s oceans if not our stomachs. Ponder the futility of islanders heading to an upland that will anyway be washed away by climate change. We are doomed beyond recognition, never mind repair. Unless we see the light of sustainable. Yeah, right.

These words pretty much suffer in translation. Thought leader is tagasugod ng pag-iisip. CSR wimps out as katungkulan ng korporasyon para sa madla. Sustainability comes through as pananatili ng kinabukasan. Although I kind of like the last even if it suggests a Luddite itch for all things old.

To Thought Leaders, I say, “Talk is cheap. Let others speak too. You lose credibility otherwise.” To corporations practicing CSR, “We’re on to your tricks.” To those waving the banner of Sustainability, “You look like a kissing cousin of CSR.” Perhaps the antidote is to impose an excise tax on those selling CSR products, or to confront the sustainability activist with a question. “What exactly would you suggest we do?” If the answer won’t pass the Cartesian existential smell test, then we know it was just hot air, if not a sigh. The climate change folks will sorely disapprove.

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