A toast to responsible businesses everywhere

If there were such a thing as a Corporate Responsibility Calendar for Northern Ireland businesses, I think it would be fair to suggest that one of the stand-out dates each year might be our very own Responsible Business Awards. Spanning from a January launch to a June Gala dinner, where we unveil the winners, the Awards span a five-month period for companies seeking well-deserved recognition for their responsible business activities. At Business in the Community, the planning and organising starts even sooner – in late summer – to review categories, to measure the successes and areas for improvement (and adjust accordingly) and, of course, to find sponsors to make the whole process, and its ultimate conclusion, possible at all.

2016 saw our 11th annual Awards in Northern Ireland, and judging by participation levels and interest this year, it seems there’s still some mileage left in this particular recognition vehicle. And yet, there’s an inevitable downside to competitions like this, where winners are selected and those who aren’t feel (wrongly) like they’ve lost something.

More than 20 companies left the Waterfront Hall last Thursday night walking tall and feeling proud of their success, having either won or been highly commended in one of our Award categories or having achieved the covetable CORE Standard.

Another 40 or more left feeling (I suspect) a little less pleased with themselves. And yet, every one of our shortlisted companies should feel immensely proud of their achievements. Not specifically the achievement of being shortlisted in Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Awards, but the achievement of having done something good. Something that employees can be proud of and that leaves a positive legacy. That sounds simplistic, but in an age where business is all too often lambasted for causing harm or acting immorally, the positive acts of responsible companies need to be held up and talked about to show that business CAN be, and very often IS, a force for good.

“Why should a company be lauded just for doing the right thing?” I hear you ask. You could say the same of other forms of recognition. Why should children be praised for good behaviour? Why should employees be given salary raises when they do a good job? Because that’s what works.

Praising and recognising good behaviour encourages others to follow suit – sometimes in pursuit of the same recognition and sometimes because they genuinely see the benefits that accrue to businesses that choose the path to a more responsible and sustainable future.

Our chosen NI Responsible Company of the Year for 2016 may not be a universally popular choice. Diageo Northern Ireland produces and trades in alcohol. For some, that makes them irresponsible before they even start. Those who would challenge the choice can quote numerous statistics about the ill effects of alcohol on society and can give many genuinely upsetting examples of the harm it can cause.

But to blame those harms primarily on the company producing the alcohol is at best naïve and at worst dishonest. If the introduction of prohibition in 1920s America taught us anything, it should be that banning potentially dangerous substances causes more harm than good. Crime, drunkenness, insanity, disrespect for the law and the cost to government all increased during prohibition, and more people died from drinking impure alcohol at that time than in a similar period before or since.

Responsibility is at the heart of this debate – both personal and corporate. If people can be supported to use alcohol in a responsible way, moderating their drinking and staying within legal and health limits, the harms will be vastly reduced. In Diageo’s case, the company fully understands that it has a product that can cause harm and, as such, has spent significant time and money on interventions, education and initiatives to persuade people about the need to drink responsibly. Those initiatives should be supported and encouraged. They are vital to the safe use of a product that exists within our society, whether we like it or not, and I believe it is right that we recognise and reward Diageo for its efforts in that regard.

The fact that we’re debating it at all is positive. It shows that we’re considering what is and isn’t responsible behaviour by companies and that, in fact, there isn’t always universal agreement on this contentious topic. But hopefully, the debate will further stimulate interest in the responsible business agenda, and we’ll have plenty of new contenders for the title of NI Responsible Business of the Year in 2017.