Still Spinning

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Issue 299
November/December 2016
Brave New Worlds

Reviews

Still Spinning
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issue cover 299

Cover: Where we live by Heike Roesel www.heikeroesel.co.uk

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Russell Warfield is unconvinced by a former oilman’s arguments that industry can reform. Connect: How Companies Succeed by Engaging Radically with Society by John Browne, Robin Nuttall & Tommy Stadlen. WH Allen, 2016. ISBN: 9780753556948

John Browne – the most recent former CEO of BP – says that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is dead. The days of getting a team to tinker on the margins of a company, doing something nice to distract from its destructive core operations, are over. Living in a digital world of increased transparency, he claims that reputation can no longer be managed through spin. Social responsibility has to be at the heart of a company’s core business.

Taken on its own terms, this is a persuasive critique of CSR. As Browne notes, the traditional approach has pleased nobody: environmentalists rightly see it for the greenwash that it is, and organisations rightly see it as a pointless drain on time and money. The book sets out a plausible alternative model: a world in which companies incorporate social good into their core business, not just because of public pressure, but because it brings the greatest success.

It’s a coherent argument. The disconnect of Connect, though, is in watching Browne trying to reconcile these principles with his track record as head of BP – a tenure remembered for aggressive expansion and cost cutting.

Let’s take the book’s central call for business to engage radically with society. It was Browne who rebranded the company “Beyond Petroleum”, promising a fundamental change in direction. Faced with a climate emergency driven by the burning of fossil fuels – a state of affairs that Browne accepts in the book – there is an obvious way in which he could have engaged radically with society: make good on his own rebrand, and oversee a rapid transition to renewables.

What did Browne actually do? He set “a target of 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions based on the 1990 baseline”. He offers this example proudly.

When your company’s core business is the extraction of fossil fuels through increasingly difficult means, the promise of cutting your operational emissions by 10% could scarcely feel less radical. It’s exactly the sort of look-over-there CSR that Browne claims is no good. And rebranding the company “Beyond Petroleum” without delivering on the promise is exactly the sort of spin he claims to be above. (“It was never meant to be literal,” he says, in probably the book’s most shameless flouting of its own conclusions.)

Browne says that traditional CSR is dead, while showcasing traditional CSR as examples of his responsible practice. He claims that companies need to engage radically with society, while giving no indication that fossil fuel companies are willing to do so. And he argues that the days of reputation management and spin are over, while trying to preserve the reputation of big business – and himself – through spin.

The bedrock beneath the book’s shifting sands is Browne’s apparent belief that markets can address all of society’s needs, and that business is “the most powerful tool we possess in our quest for progress and prosperity”. The core business of Connect is to justify the core business of BP. It is an exercise in the CSR greenwash it rejects.

Russell Warfield is a freelance journalist.

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