Since 2003, Lifeworth, a Switzerland-based corporate
social responsibility (CSR) consultancy promoting personal and systemic
social change, has published a review of the previous year’s
CSR-related developments. This year’s edition, Tipping Frames:
The Lifeworth Review of 2006, does much more than simply rehash
events—it advances a theoretical analysis of the mechanisms
whereby CSR creates change. As the title suggests, the review fuses
two popular notions—tipping points (explosive proliferation
in beliefs or actions, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book,
The Tipping Point), and cognitive frames (how concepts are framed
determines their uptake, popularized by George Lakoff’s book,
Don’t Think of an Elephant).
In the introduction, Lifeworth founder Jem Bendell focuses on climate
change, first noting that it “tipped” in 2006, shifting
from lingering skepticism to widespread acceptance—it “has
begun to be understood as a humanitarian emergency,” according
to Bendell. Climate change also represents a powerful “frame.”
“Some frames are deeper than others, in the sense that a change
in them has cascading implications for a range of other assumptions
and beliefs,” Dr. Bendell explains. “Climate change
is ‘deep’ in this sense; as recognizing it as real and
urgent means we are challenged to question our assumptions about
current forms of economic development being ‘progress.’
“Hence, ‘tipping frames’ not only describes the
process of an altered frame going mainstream, but also those frames
that, once altered, lead to other frames in society reaching a tipping
point,” he adds.
Climate change is a prime example of how CSR is a perfect playing
field for tipping frames, because it resides at the intersection
of business, government and civil society. As Gladwell explains,
“It is through people connecting different social networks
that ideas spread rapidly.” CSR also resides at the locus
of areas of deep public concern that form our primary frames, such
as environment, health, poverty and human rights. By its very nature,
CSR seeks to reframe business and activism from how they are traditionally
understood as separate spheres into a common arena.
The introduction tees up the rest of the report, which is broken
down into 12 essays, three for each quarter of last year. Some essays
shoot far beyond the scope of the introduction, addressing issues
from the co-opting of fair trade by mega-companies in the first
quarter to the rise of the modern global slave trade in the fourth
quarter. A thread running throughout the report is the globalization
of CSR, with essays focusing on India, China and Vietnam.
However, some essays tie directly back to the intro. For example,
“Consuming Truths” focuses on “sustainable consumption,”
discussing how “finding new pathways for social development
that are sufficiently resource-light to be possible for a majority
of the world’s population over the long term, rather than
the minority of a few generations of middle- to upper-class consumers,
is a pro-poor vision.”
The challenge of sustainable consumption is to tip the frame—in
other words, to transform the very way consumption is currently
understood as divorced from its impact on Earth and on those who
live in poverty as a result of over-consumption by wealthier classes.
The temptation is to merely tilt the frame. Bendell cites George
Lakoff’s example of “economic growth” as a perfect
cognitive frame for business as usual, as it derives power from
implying the accumulation of money. The problem is, this frame veils
the social and environmental costs of economic growth.
“Much analysis suggests that a certain amount of decoupling
of economic growth with resource consumption is possible, but not
entirely, and so only a small amount of economic growth will probably
be sustainable in the long term,” Dr. Bendell points out.
“The challenge is to therefore refocus on what we want from
economy, as a society.”
Stepping back, the ultimate success of CSR may be measured by its
ability to shift our world from secular markets to moral markets.
This does not mean to say that markets must get religion. Rather,
markets must incorporate and take account of the ethical impacts
and implications of business actions and transactions.
“If there is a silver lining to the clouds of climate change,
it might be in the way it wakes us up to our moral responsibilities
as part of life on Earth,” Dr. Bendell concludes.
Bill Baue works with SRI World Group, Inc., the publisher of