CSV Forum = Coalescence of Sceptical Viewpoints?

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Reflecting on yesterday’s CSV Forum 2010 in London, I confess that my expectations going into the event were low. I always find it difficult to accept that events of this nature are not exquisitely choreographed by the hosts – in this case the world’s largest food company, Nestlé, which espouses the Creating Shared Value (CSV) concept of corporate responsibility. It’s not that I don’t see the value of the CSV approach, or that I don’t welcome the opportunity to mix with – and learn from – some of the great thinkers on the Nestlé‘s three CSVfocus areas, namely Water, Rural Development and Nutrition. I suppose my expectations for a frank and lively conversation were somewhat lowered at the pre-Forum dinner on Wednesday evening, enjoyed in a spectacularly lavish setting at the top of the iconic Gherkin building in the City of London. That’s where I heard Nestlé‘s CEO Paul Bulcke remark that “CSV” is in fact nothing new, it’s simply a helpful articulation – thanks to Prof. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School – of what Nestlé has always believed and practised (or words to that effect). Hey ho, this is going to be a looong day…

With my sceptic hat perched comfortably atop my thinning pate, I took my seat in the 300-strong audience at the Mermaid Conference Centre on the north bank of the Thames, and I found myself genuinely engaged. In fact, I almost started to consider myself embraced, to borrow Nestlé‘s own language of stakeholder engagement. There actually was a frank and lively conversation, and it was bookended by an audience poll that certainly didn’t give the impression of choreography.

A question was put to the audience by the session moderator – SustainAbility non-executive director Sophia Tickell – at the very start of the Forum along the lines of “To what extent do you agree with the following statement: Sustainability is now firmly embedded in corporate strategy?“. Forum delegates were asked to respond on a five point scale from ‘Strongly disagree’ through ‘Neither agree nor disagree’ to ‘Strongly agree’. What was particularly insightful was that the very same question was posed at the end of the Forum, after some eight hours of debate on the sustainability issues most material to Nestlé‘s business. The before and after responses are summarised in the following graph:

My take on this: as soon as the great sustainability challenges of our time are brought into sharp focus, even comparatively well informed observers come to realise there is so much more that needs to be done before business can consider themselves to have embraced sustainability.

And I’ll leave a final question open-ended: is CSV really just a smart Harvard professor’s articulation of what Nestlé has always been doing?