Business needs to be less two-faced about corporate social responsibility

The business case for a clear and concise corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy is straightforward, and there have been many studies that prove this.

The ethical concerns of big business are connected to those of society at large. From an HR perspective, for example, it is very clear that CSR is an important component for attracting and retaining committed employees. In the talent wars, top performers are more likely to choose a firm that reflects their own concerns and views about society.

At Gallaher, we are aware of both these things and this is why we take CSR very seriously indeed. We are in a controversial sector [tobacco], and we don’t make any claims about our industry and business that we cannot substantiate.

But there are other organisations, I fear, that use CSR just to suit their own ends in the short term. It is not genuinely part of the way they do business; it is about publicity and public relations. At best, this is enlightened self interest, and at worst, unscrupulous corporate spin, depending upon which claims are being made.

The problem is measurement.

Without any measurement, there is a risk that CSR simply becomes a form of conceptual catch-all, encompassing things such as sustainable development, corporate citizenship, business ethics, environmental concerns, contribution to society, treatment of employees and so on.

But, even with measurement, there are, in my view, still some companies using CSR as a means of publicly reconciling some of the conflicting pressures they are under from a growing number of their own stakeholders. Good publicity is used to mask other issues in their businesses that still go largely undetected, that they haven’t thought through holistically. The strategy link is missing. There is a very real difference between being such a company and being a truly socially involved corporate citizen.

As one example of this, I question whether some businesses, with genuinely excellent customer-facing and employee policies, pay as much attention to issues associated with how they treat their producers and supply chains in turn.

What this says to me is that, in the wrong hands, CSR could become a form of reactionary management, with companies implementing policies on the hoof in response to criticisms they have received, either generally or specifically, as a result of participating in the many comparative CSR data surveys that now exist. Responding like this is doing what others do, rather than doing what needs to be done in the specific circumstances of a particular business.

In fact, there is a possibility that the very existence of comparative indices and reporting data for CSR might even be fuelling part of this problem. Is it really possible to identify a set of criteria that can properly compare all business sectors genuinely and fairly? I am not certain.

There is a way through this, though.

CSR must be about the reputation and corporate direction of the businesses we are in. This is about what makes you different and unique in your company, as opposed to what makes you the same as everyone else. The nucleus of this is how your company actually conducts business and makes its profits, not how much it skims off the top to do good deeds.

So, the next time you read any form of CSR report, think about whether, alongside the data and the survey information revealing CSR performance, you are also being given some real substance concerning the strategy and the ethos of the business. Is it all joined up?

A really good company CSR report will be talking to you about how CSR is used to regulate business processes, how this affects which business areas the company targets, whether this is a part of the values and beliefs of the business, etc. If it isn’t this, then CSR isn’t really anything at all.

Corporate social responsibility: Is going green good for business?

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