The CSR Giving Tree

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“Excited for Giving Back Day tomorrow?”

My coworker stood next to me, his smile scintillating. “It’s a full paid day of work, but we get to give back instead!”

I had a boatload of questions. What work would we be doing? Who were we giving back to? Why did the amount of excitement in the office to get compensated far exceed our aggregate knowledge about the spaces we were supposedly “giving back” in?

The topic of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, surfaced more than once on the ride to the local food bank. What a wonderful, humbling experience we were about to have. And how altruistic is the company we work for, one that posits that a single eight-hour day boxing meals for homeless individuals relieves our organization of any other social obligation. And it wasn’t just us: Plaques for “great service” from Google, Facebook, Apple — the list goes on — lined the lobby walls, past which sat thousands of donated La Croix cans (the unofficial sparkling water personality of the Bay Area).

We were to arrange 15-pound food and drink sets from donated materials for distribution to the food bank’s clients. Instead of nutritious and balanced sets, the quest to output as many 15-pound sets as possible materialized into packages hastily arranged with either 100% La Croix, unvetted expired contents, or unchecked food packets with broken seals.

And just like that, we packed thousands of pounds (a statistic our leadership proudly shared in the company Slack) that the food bank coordinators would need to unpack, vet and repack after our departure. It appeared that the sole purpose of this “Giving Back Day” was not to leverage our minds or physical abilities to streamline an understaffed organization doing good work. No, it was an unfair exchange. The food bank would provide us an undeserved fulfillment of responsibility, a productive statistic for marketing. In return, we would bestow them with leftover La Croix that the staff ordered a bit too much of that week, and sprinkle their name in our publicity.

When did CSR become synonymous with benefaction? The notion — that a new nontech initiative in a new nontech domain is the only way for a tech company to leave society better than they found it — absolves them of the imperative to reexamine their own work and ensure the very same thing. We ardently measure every quantity imaginable related to the activation, usage and interactions of products, but how often do we, by virtue of our job, quantify and incorporate the externalities as drivers of the product development cycle? Why doesn’t fixing the world through tech companies start with fixing tech companies themselves?

Apple, what if we started with making planned obsolescence (the practice of intentionally shortening the lifespan of products) itself obsolete? More than once, my devices stopped working exactly a week after my two-year AppleCare coverage ended. Even worse, my friends’ devices became defunct shortly after installing updates. The incessant output of new iPhones, tablets and laptops with aggrandized features has established global cobalt supply chains, where the mining for cobalt in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo rests on exploitative child labor, undocumented deaths and slavery. Doing more for these unseen thousands, who are more likely to be buried alive in a collapsing tunnel than experience the iPhone 11’s night mode camera, seems like a reasonable start for some CSR, wouldn’t you say?

Amazon, what if we started with taking responsibility for the community whose name you’ve expropriated? The Amazon rainforest burned for more than a week before I first heard of the fires through a friend’s Instagram story, out of all places. Searching Google for “Amazon” and “Amazon fire” minutes later rendered results from the newest Kindle Fire updates to articles about Kesha performing at an Amazon company concert. Recognizing that your company’s popularity has obscured its namesake of the awareness it deserved when more than 39,000 fires broke out this year seems like a reasonable start for some CSR, wouldn’t you say?

Salesforce, what if we started with simplifying the incredibly convoluted “Nonprofit Success Pack” and enable, rather than inhibit, organizations from doing good work? Instead of giving your employees 56 potentially unused hours a year to broadly “volunteer in the community,” why not devote these resources to lower the barrier of integration, cost and operation for organizations who might not be able to afford the same luxury of having thousands of engineers? If you truly cared, why not eliminate the forced dependency on Salesforce consultants, ease data import and lower costs during product onboarding? Optimize for impact, not profit for those who sacrifice the latter for the former. Seems like a reasonable start for some CSR, wouldn’t you say?

At the end of the day, a company’s corporate “social” responsibility extends to the parametrization of a “society,” which colors the company’s initiatives. And while these companies do “something” — and ensure that it’s advertised on every social media outlet possible — I believe that a company’s CSR is far more effective upon critically probing its own full-supply chain, from material sourcing to electronic waste, and directing energy to initiatives within their own domain.

There’s a lot of work to do. Let’s not create more for those actually making a difference.

Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].