Is it just semantics? Making Business Sense of Corporate Social Responsibility

I recently attended a Circular Economy workshop, and when sitting around the table discussing the barriers to engaging in circular economy interventions, it became apparent that the answers were akin to those I hear from companies every day about why they don’t engage more in their CR campaigns. The key reasons include the following:

  • Turning a profit is the main business priority
  • Senior-level management doesn’t believe it deserves the time and budgetary commitment of other daily tasks
  • CR/Sustainability/Environmental practitioners within the company are not given the time to think about the future initiatives but rather must react to the needs of today

All three of these concerns are a symptom of the same problem – businesses do not view their CR commitments as part of how they do business but as an added task to aid their public image or their ability to hold a licence to operate. They do the minimum because they know that it is expected of them by various stakeholders to show some level of commitment.

The question is, how many really value it as a tool to drive their business forward?

Luckily, many of our member companies have truly embedded CR into how they conduct business on a daily basis, enabling them to achieve CORE accreditation.

These companies ensure that all staff — from those on the shop floor to the Senior Management Team — understand that they are doing it not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it makes sound business sense. When I conduct focus groups within these CORE companies, I know  they have done this successfully because employees say “that’s just the way we do things around here” when I explain all the elements that the company engages in are actually considered CR.

My advice to those practitioners who wish to push forward their CR commitments is to tackle it head on and to focus on the ‘business credentials’ of the deal.

This may involve using a different language to talk about your CR activity. So, for example, don’t talk about ‘circular economy’, but instead talk about resource and risk management. Instead of discussing ‘employee engagement’, focus on the cost of recruiting against training and retaining. Instead of ‘benchmarking or stakeholder engagement’, we should talk about mechanisms for continual improvement, Let’s replace the language of talking about the time spent monitoring and measuring or money spent on reducing waste or energy, and focus on the business benefits: cost savings and future proofing.

Once you have received affirmation from senior management that they understand what you are trying to achieve, then you will be faced with the task of embedding CSR in what you do. Here are my top tips on how to do it:

  • Think from the inside out – understand the “why” in your business; the values and purpose should be more than a marketing piece on the wall, or a signature on an email.
  • Communicate that every decision made in the business should contribute to the values of the organisation and in achieving its purpose
  • Responsible leadership in a company is evident when ‘how you do business’ is talked about before what you do. A company saying customer service comes first is a company with a purpose; customers are one of many stakeholders for whom you should have a comprehensive communications plan in place; ensuring it includes feedback. Set targets for staff in relation to responsible business practices, and encourage engagement in community initiatives and internal health & wellbeing events.
  • Link your community engagement to your business priorities and purpose. For example, Patagonia, a company borne from love for nature by climbers and surfers, leads on a number of innovative CR approaches aimed at integrating CR in the supply chain, reducing its global environmental footprint and changing consumer behaviour through emphasis on repair and recycling.
  • Set challenging, specific and measurable targets, not ones that are easily reached. These need to reflect short-term plans but also show how they contribute to solving longer-term issues. For example, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan commits the company to ambitious targets over the next decade: it intends to help more than a billion people take action to improve their health; to halve the environmental footprint of its products; and to source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably.
  • There needs to be a clear link between CR targets and performance management (including at senior level). I cannot stress how important it is to measure the success of these interventions; if you can show that they make sound business sense, you will be supported to grow your CR engagement by senior leaders.
  • Celebrate success when it happens… Go for that award –you deserve it!  Or shout about your success during #RBweek

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