A company decides it’s time for a makeover. In comes a brand new caring, sharing image and a syrupy ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ policy to match. There’s just one problem: underneath the surface, nothing has changed.

Volkswagen was once a car company that people trusted. It was one of the good guys: a supporter of charities and worthy projects, committed to the environment, a “thought leader”, and an all-round “change agent” for making the world a better place.

We know all this because each year, VW would tell us about it in the company’s annual sustainability and responsibility reports. It went so far as to sign up to the United Nations Global Compact, committing itself to ‘promoting human rights, upholding labor standards, protecting the environment and combating corruption’. From a baby care programme in Brazil, through to a scheme encouraging Bentley employees in Crewe to walk to work, VW looked and sounded like everyone’s idea of a ‘responsible’ organisation.

When a glossy brochure becomes meaningless…

Well that was the story, at least. Of course, what’s not mentioned in VW’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) blurbs was the fact that engineering ethics had been put on ice when it came to emissions. This wasn’t a simple blunder or oversight; the company had used its considerable resources to design, install and use a defeat device that would detect when models were being tested for emissions in order to skew the results. It was all very clever – apart from being totally at odds with everything the company said it stood for.

In the aftermath, heads rolled, fines were dished out and sales slumped. Gradually, truths emerged about what was happening under the bonnet at the Wolfsberg giant. As one exec put it, “We need in future a climate in which problems aren’t hidden but can be openly communicated to superiors.” He went on: “We need a culture in which it’s possible and permissible to argue with your superior about the best way to go.” In the post-mortem, “company culture” kept cropping up as the one big thing in need of a rehaul.

Google had (and probably still does have) the most succinct and possibly the most famous of all CSR mantras, “Don’t be evil”. VW could certainly talk the talk on corporate responsibility. But the emissions scandal reminds us that ‘good works’ and a glossy brochure counts for little if the company’s culture is broken. It’s about getting the fundamentals right first of all: the right values, the right people trained to respect those values, ethics and accountability. If none of this is in place, companies can and will find themselves being bitten by “evil stuff” – CSR policy or not.

Abercrombie and Fitch: hypocritical window dressing?

Customers like companies who do the right thing. In fact, more than half of us would pay a premium for a responsible company’s products. But as customers, we’re also pretty jaded; we’ve seen enough gimmicks to sense when something’s just for show.

Take, as an example, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, who learned the hard way that when your corporate blurb says one thing and you do exactly the opposite, you are probably going to get found out in the end. The brand had the type of catch-all corporate responsibility statement that we’ve seen many times before: “It is our mission to continue our efforts to support human rights, invest in our associates, give back to our communities, commit to environmental sustainability efforts, make responsible business decisions, stand for and achieve diversity and inclusion”.

It’s those words “diversity” and “inclusion” that people wondered about. For one thing, the A&F vibe was unashamedly preppy. What’s more, from apparently vetoing religious headwear for staff, through to a lack of larger-sized clothing on the shelves, it hardly felt as if the company was going out of its way to welcome everyone.

And then came the reveal: the resurfacing of an interview with Jeffries in which he had described his target market: “We go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” To top it all off, an inquisitive filmmaker revealed how the company would rather destroy remnant stock, rather than have the brand devalued by donating it globally to the homeless.

What A&F said and what it did were completely at odds. Its CSR statement was ridiculed and its stock tanked. The moral: if you don’t really mean it, it’s best not to say it.

When being responsible is part of who you are

We come to regard companies as responsible, not because of what they say – but because of what they do – and crucially, why they exist in the first place.

For cleaning products manufacturer Seventh Generation for instance, this commitment to responsibility is in its DNA. The very name of the company comes from an ancient Native American principle: “in our deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”. Each decision Seventh Generation makes, from its supply chain through to the way it treats its staff is informed by this principle.

Honesty is another hallmark of CSR winners. Climbing gear specialist, Patagonia has a particularly refreshing approach. It tries to do its best, yet it starts its responsibility statement with a frank confession: “We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do.” Similarly, Honest Tea is committed to fairness but admits “We’re not perfect, just honest”.

Customers don’t expect you to be superhuman. In fact, 87% of consumers believe it’s OK if a company isn’t perfect, so long as it’s truthful about its CSR efforts. Rather than posing as a saint, focus instead on getting across why you exist, what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re making a difference. And always mean what you say!