Why Corporate Social Responsibility will never lead social change

Telstra yesterday backflipped on its backflip to abandon funding for a same-sex corporate marriage campaign. Its original abandonment of the campaign came after lobbying by the Catholic Church, though the official reason was that Telstra wanted to give voices to individuals during the same-sex marriage plebiscite debate by muting its own.

So what changed? Did Telstra suddenly discover a spine it realised was there all along?

Many who lobbied and threatened to boycott Telstra have claimed its renewed support as a victory for both consumer power and progressive values. However, the fact that a company could be swayed away from this overwhelmingly popular position, even for a week, shows that morality is not at the heart of the corporate conscience. Do you know what is? Money. Money is at the heart of all profit-driven business. This simple fact means that all attempts at corporate social responsibility are complicated by the single driving factor of increasing profit.

As anyone on the progressive side of politics knows, social change isn’t always popular, at least not from the outset. This means it’s inherently unprofitable until the value or belief is incorporated into the mainstream consciousness — at which point it can be monetised and marketed as a mark of a “progressive” company. At this point, the issue is deemed safe and profitable for companies to throw their support behind. With support for marriage equality in Australia at nearly 70%, as well as legalised in many places across the globe, it’s hard to think of a “safer” campaign to back.

However, there are many campaigns and movements with public support that nevertheless do not have support from the private sector due to the fact that they would compromise profits. The anti-CSG movement is one of the best examples of this in Australia — Despite broad support across many segments of the community, CSG companies can never be relied upon to make the ethical or moral choice to stop fracking land for the greater good while it directly threatens their profit margins.

The fact that people turn to corporations for social responsibility is an indictment on the failure of governments to cater to the needs of the public. Our concept of “the public good” has been eroded for many decades: public spaces have been traded in for shopping malls and outrageously-priced developments, and public hospitals and public education have been systematically driven into the ground so that private health and education have become a necessity. Our world has become framed in such a way that we no longer expect that our governments will represent our views or our best interests. Nowhere else in Australia is this perception more starkly proven than in NSW, where businesses have “double votes” in local council elections- meaning any one business has twice the influence that you do. Australia’s ratification of the TPP is yet another damning sign that governments prioritise corporations (who prioritise their coffers) over us, our health, and our safety.

All this is not to say that there isn’t a role to be played by corporations in public debate and progressive change. The messy nature of our public and private spheres mean that often people aren’t given the power to create change in their own communities; governments often fail these communities, and people will turn to the private sector for assistance. Sometimes this assistance is material, such as supplies during a natural disaster; other times it is a platform to amplify voices and issues. Given the immense power and influence of corporations in modern society, it has become somewhat incumbent upon progressives to explore this avenue and use these platforms to their advantage.

Such platforms however must not be confused with a moral compass. At the end of the day, movements are not fought and won by corporations; they’re won on the streets, by ordinary people and activists who unite to create social change. They’re won through conversations, protests and research, which work together to change the public conversation. As the cause gains momentum, some corporations might jump on the bandwagon and increase public pressure, (as long as it doesn’t jeopardise their profits). Finally, progressive causes are adopted by governments through legislation, long after the community has been sold on the idea.

Support for marriage equality is always welcome, and it’s positive that Telstra is back on board. But make no mistake: corporations will never lead us on social change.