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Have we just seen the CSR/sustainable development zenith?

Worrisome for all who espouse CSR/sustainable development:

 . Climate change stalwart Jeffrey Immelt resigns as CEO at GE.

 . Sustainable development champion Paul Pohlman under fire despite profits from his Sustainable Living business plan at Unilever.

 . The Guardian closes down its GuardianSusBiz, highly respected "global voice for cutting edge sustainability comment, debate and insight" (147K followers).

And consider how the new, systemic changes may well have lasting negative effects:

In his extended commentary, "Decline of the Baronial C.E.O." The New York Times reporter Nelson D. Schwarz points to today's "activist investors with outsize power" wielding it to demand double-digit annual earning growth in a stagnant economy. Or else.

"... As a result, while companies in many ways have more economic and political power than ever, chief executives [with few exceptions] now shy away from weighing in on the policy level or broader societal issues ... Mr. Immelt's departure leaves a void at the intersection of business and public policy."

"... It is one consequence of a transformed economic landscape in which many of the mega-corporations that defined 20th-century commercial life are confronting a host of new business and technological challenges."

Citing Amazon's $13.4 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market, Mr. Schwartz observes that the deal "shows how the digital age has also upended the competitive landscape pitting companies in vastly different industries against one another." Such differing corporate backgrounds also bring with them varying degrees of technological prowess -- in this case, digital marketing vs. bricks-and-mortar retailing -- as well as different degrees of commitment to CSR and sustainable development.

At the same time, corporate governance is now in play in Congress. The House recently passed  The Financial Choice Act which would require investors to own a large stake in order to propose policy changes. If it becomes law, the Act would disenfranchise many small -- and not so small -- investors, including some institutional investors who favor ESG progress. Organizations such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute could well be muted in these dialogues with corporate boards.

To be sure, the global corporate social responsibility/sustainable development vanguard remains vibrant. Its many thousands of companies, NGOS, academic institutions, government reps and individuals around the world are expending much intellectual and political capital to maintain and advance the current hard-earned CSR/SD momentum. Powerful organizations such as the United Nations Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development , Global Reporting Initiative, Corporate Citizenship Center at Boston College and Business for Social Responsibility -- among many others -- now must work hard to sustain their shared mission in a new age of business in society.

 

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