April 25, 2007
Corporate Social Responsibility: Perfect Playing Field for Tipping Points and Cognitive Frames
by Bill Baue
The Lifeworth review of CSR developments in 2006 fuses two popular concepts on social beliefs and
change to promote personal, corporate, and societal transformation.
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,
Donít Think of an
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 Dr. 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. "Those of us who seek to serve systemic
transformations for a better world, as described in the Lifeworth Review of last year, need to
better understand this process of tipping frames."
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. And 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 intro, 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.
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
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. Dr. 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
"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."
'green growth' would not challenge but actually reinforce the dominance of the economic growth
frame, as it implies green economic growth," he adds. "Instead, we should articulate a new vision
of 'societal growth'--the increase in well-being of all life affected by a society."
proposed term may or may not solve the framing issue, as it implies a continuing increase in
population, which carries its own set of social and environmental strains.
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
"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