Corporate social responsibility is not, strictly speaking, ethical. Therein lies part of its appeal as a corporate vote-catcher with an increasing number of brand owners – most conspicuous among them Marks & Spencer, which last week announced its ambitious Marks & Start programme.
CSR is defined by Business in the Community, which represents more than 700 companies in the UK, as: ‘The way companies manage the business process to produce an overall positive impact on society.’ This is not an unfair, unworthy or unreasonable definition so far as it goes. Unfortunately, CSR is often taken to mean much more, both by the companies that practise it and the various communities they serve; with disastrous results when the programme does not live up to expectations.
Let’s look at what CSR is not. It’s not a whole-hearted commitment to do good in society. Very few companies have aspired to put ethics at the core of their marketing or corporate offer, and still fewer have succeeded. The Co-op Bank, the Body Shop, fairtrade brands such as Cafédirect, and (conceivably) a handful of ethical investment funds remain exceptions for a very good reason. Most consumers, most of the time, have no wish to conduct an intimate moral and philosophical enquiry into how desirable products are sourced or arrive on shelves at competitive prices. Just as important, shareholders would see every reason to jettison a corporation that suddenly started to ‘squander’ their dividends on quixotic and unattainable ends.
Even so, doing nothing is not an option. The vast majority of companies would not dare to adopt the callous public demeanour of a Ryanair (as exemplified by the wheelchair incident) for fear of alienating their customers. When things turn bad, as they do from time to time, a cushion of public sympathy is highly desirable. Carefully limited and targeted CSR programmes, of the sort employed by Tesco and Walkers, often perform an invaluable service in this area. They can tap into the various corporate constituencies of local community, general consumer, staff and City in a way not easily achievable through any other single medium.
The knack is in understanding the limits of CSR as a tactic. M&S chairman Luc Vandervelde has pledged his company to a much higher profile and thorough commitment than the common run of CSR programmes. The initiative involves a long-term commitment to a work experience programme for the socially deprived, with the possibility of a permanent job for those very few who prove exceptionally able. The programme is laudable in its aim, and may help to refurbish – after an unfortunate interlude of mass redundancies – M&S’s long pedigree of corporate philanthropy. But Vandervelde and his successors must ensure that the programme does not become discredited by failure to deliver on its elevated aims. After all, not many of these work experience people are likely to be paid, still less end up with a full-time job.
Cover Story, page 26