HISTORY IS A bit of an octopus. A thousand years ago the narrative was pretty well-defined, but the nearer it gets to our own day, the more tentacles there are and the more complex it all seems. When it comes to writing the history of a major modern phenomenon like feminism or environmentalism, things get really complicated. Where did the ideas emerge, after all? It’s necessary to chip away at the individual stories to find anything approaching a definitive story.

Both of these books attempt to write a kind of history, in this case of something which is, on the face of it, much narrower: the corporate responsibility movement. We might not agree with their conclusions, but it is hard to underestimate the importance of the project. We need a history of these changes: a story that can be told and understood, even if it is disputed, as it is bound to be. Otherwise, we’re in danger of repeating the whole thing over and over again. Just to read a draft history of the times and campaigns we have all lived through is invigorating and worthwhile.

Positively Responsible is by a professor of ‘regeneration’ and a professor of ‘organisational psychology’, both working at the sharp end with corporations. It is a strange book in some ways: the two authors have very different styles, and in their efforts to stitch together a hopeful message that change is possible, they do leap around some discursive topics – there is a chapter on the impact of Nature on individuals, a chapter on Sweden, a chapter on using theatre. It isn’t quite clear why they choose the examples they did, but the key is to enjoy their journey, via profiles of Terry Thomas (Co-operative Bank), Yves Chouinard (Patagonia) and Ray Anderson (Interface) – three business leaders who understood sustainability early on.

We also meet people like Ed Deedigan, a former member of the band Blur, who uses theatre and role-play to change the attitude of organisations towards sustainability. We hear the strange story of Andy Dickson, from the training company Impact International, who takes corporate leaders to shacks on the tops of hills, leaves them there alone for a few hours, and finds them in tears when he comes back.

Out of all this slightly discursiveanecdotal hotch-potch, the conclusions are surprisingly focused: that we can change people’s attitudes to the planet, and it is easiest to do so at work, and by using sticks rather than carrots. One reason workplaces are such potent places for change is that decisions can be taken there: the kind of in-depth group conversation that results in major change.

This is directly relevant to the story that is woven together in The Difference Makers, which is a fascinating attempt to build up a history of the corporate responsibility movement, largely in a series of interviews with twenty-five key individuals involved. It is true that there is a clear American bias in the choice of these people. I would certainly have included Peter Webster, Ed Mayo and Tessa Tennant from the UK, and there is little or no mention of any strands emerging from anywhere else.

But as the book unfolds, the stories are absolutely compelling. It is edited in such a way that the interaction between the people and the ideas – ethical investment, green consumerism or reporting standards – takes on a life of its own. This is, in fact, an enormously valuable book, because the interviews are full of personality and thoughtfulness.

I am sceptical about the alphabet soup of acronyms that the corporate responsibility movement has thrown up in its wake, and the way it has often served to shift responsibility for ethical leadership from the board to the accounting functions. But even a sceptic like me was carried away with the stories and the bizarre number of ways that people fell into the movement: one started as a trainee priest, one as an artist; others simply accepted the challenge posed.

Here are two very different books, but they overlap in a number of unexpected ways. First, their conviction, as one of the difference-makers put it, that the individuals who work for the most damaging corporations are not themselves evil – people are rarely evil – but corporations can be. It makes sense, then, to focus the change on the organisations.

Second, the sense that what we lack is corporate leadership. People with vision may not be a non-renewable resource, but they are too rare in the corporate world.

Third, the critical importance of sensing a connection with Nature: the powerful experience that brought one of the few British difference-makers, John Elkington, into this pioneering work.

All that, and the importance of telling a story, even if the raw material is numbers. That is what history attempts to do, and what we need to do regarding the complex series of changes we are living through. These books are important attempts to begin that story. •

David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation.