Ask any chief executive of a major company which topic on their agenda they might usefully spend more time on and I would be surprised if the words “corporate social responsibility” did not float quite quickly to the surface.
CSR is where the Venn diagram of a corporation’s core interests intersect; where marketing, investor relations and public affairs, legal compliance, procurement and human resources all come together.
Or, more routinely, collide. For, despite its centrality, there is about CSR an annoying vaporous quality which makes it everyone’s responsibility yet no one’s in particular. And because it has no strictly accountable relationship with corporate profitability and the tight disciplines of quarterly reporting, it tends to get relegated to some partially sighted department, most commonly corporate communications or marketing, where it is significantly under-resourced.
More honoured in the breach
The folly of not getting a proper grip on CSR can, unfortunately, be most readily appreciated in the breach. The Texas City explosion will reverberate around the corridors of “Beyond Petroleum” for years. Just about every key performance indicator that matters to BP has been negatively affected to an unknown degree by the disaster: share price, reputation as a corporate citizen, internal morale, marketing platform, exposure to legal liability.
And don’t think Lord Browne and BP’s board are an isolated instance of company directors not thinking through the more sophisticated ramifications of CSR. Similar issues, though admittedly on a lesser scale, are facing Cadbury and BA executives.
But 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. What if CSR could be more closely aligned with the profit motive – made, in short, a part of the company’s DNA and integrated at every level of the business process rather than occupying the default position of a bolt-on extra? Perhaps these corporate disasters would be less frequent, or at least less devastating in their consequences.
There is some reason for believing that the green issue will provide precisely this catalyst for CSR, at once endowing it with more focused, concrete aims and elevating its importance within the corporate agenda.
As the very name of the mould-breaking We’re In This Together initiative suggests, the issue of combating climate change is not some piece of optional corporate philanthropy, but a real opportunity for companies to seize the levers of a movement that involves everybody. And it’s being led, as it should be, from the front by the chief executives of blue-chip companies. Although he’s been extensively quoted in our “green issue” this week, I cannot do better at this point than recycle the words of one of the nine participants, James Murdoch, ceo of BSkyB.
“Tackling climate change,” he says, “is an opportunity for consumer brands to find a new voice in encouraging meaningful engagement, helping drive momentum towards a tipping point where environmental awareness evolves into a mass consumer movement.”
A virtuous circle
At their best, corporate initiatives like this will create a powerful virtuous circle. On the one hand, reducing carbon dioxide omissions makes increasing economic and commercial sense: something that can be readily acknowledged in the boardroom. On the other, giving “rudderless” individual consumers the means to achieve a series of “small victories” in improving the quality of their environment is a seductive way of reinforcing their loyalty well beyond the dreams of the most successful CRM programme.
Woe betide your company, though, if it gets caught with its integrity down. Finding out the hard way that one of your suppliers has been sourcing the hard-wood for your furniture by indiscriminate logging in the Amazon basin, or that the caffeine stimulant in your organic energy drink comes from one of the cola plantations responsible for the near extinction of the orang utang in Borneo, simply won’t do.
Green is a campaign, not a battle. The “small victories” are yours, as well as the consumer’s, and they will need to be hard fought every inch of the way. That will require a top-down, rigorous commitment to CSR that most companies are so far unprepared for.
Stuart Smith, Editor