Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been used or abused by various corporations in hopes of boosting their public relations, reputation and image, amongst other things. It wasn’t long ago when many believed that the “business of business is business”. Over time, we have seen businesses being forced to adopt the altered version of James Bond’s favourite phrase. What we now have is the “licence to operate”. More relevantly, we are looking at a social licence to operate. Consumers are demanding greater accountability to make informed choices. Companies are under greater pressure to undertake non-financial reporting and communicate their internal findings in a way that is both ethically and socially acceptable to the general public. In a sense, gaining a social licence to operate is not unlike trying to attain a driver’s licence, albeit at different stages. In the context of companies, this is how the analogy goes:
- Basic Theory Test- Proposal on ethical and green practices. Increasingly so, this proposal includes, in writing, the “extra mile” the company is willing to undertake.
- Practical Test- The realization and practice of a company’s values and the portrayal of this to the general public by the media.
- Final Theory Test- The annual/bi-annual publication of an organization’s non-financial report.
Basic Theory Test- Making or Breaking the First Impression
The initial step is as simple as publishing your core values and key social initiatives on the website. Once considered the dormant page on any website, it is increasingly becoming one of the most important and popular segments in any company website. Not just for consumers, but for potential employees as well. The impact of such basic measures can be likened to that of “first impressions”; it leaves a lasting albeit malleable impression on anybody the organization approaches. CSR is an integrative and long-term commitment. As a result, media releases of a company’s activities in previous years are also included in the information utilised to make that first impression. A progressive growth graph must be achieved in order to remain relevant and credible.
Practical Test- Integration and Execution
This stage is the true test as to whether CSR goes beyond “greenwashing” or a form of marketing. The common error made is to equate corporate social responsibility with philanthropy. Sure, philanthropy is a part of CSR initiatives but that is all it is, a part. CSR is about integrating your desire to do good with your business practices in a way that is mutually beneficial to all stakeholders, including the company. Many companies view CSR most generously as an investment but for most, it remains an expense or worse still, a liability – in that CSR is inefficient and eats into profits, especially in bad economic times. And so the list of criticisms goes on. However, what many fail to consider is a relatively new phenomenon known to most as natural capitalism.
Natural capitalism implies that any method of production, distribution and all other facets associated with a company’s operations are not economically efficient if they are not environmentally and ethically so. This means re-inventing entire business processes. It may be costly but yet, it is a necessary evil. For better or for worse, companies today are extremely vulnerable to media representations and with consumers demanding ethical and environmentally-friendly products, ignoring this may result in poor sales, and in some cases, as employees relate less to a company’s goals, a drop in productivity. Ultimately, in any case, the result would be a drop in profits.
So even if you are sceptical and believe that “the business of business is business”, the fact remains that ignoring CSR is not an option. “Greenwashing” or not, it forms the basis of strategy and communication in large multinational corporations; it is a new, active and engaging form of doing business.
Reports- Relevant or Redundant?
CSR is a little like social media – it is here to stay. The best move to make is to harness and utilize it to the best of your company’s ability and in a manner that maximizes results. When you think about it, is the power of social media responsible for generating interest in CSR? After all, no company wants to see itself being shamed, least of all, contagiously across newsfeeds and via tweets. Social media provides a platform for companies to highlight their initiatives and make them known to consumers and stakeholders. Reports are increasingly being used as an indicator of credibility with international certifications and standards forming a major segment of these reports. Reports indicate and assess how much companies harness and align their specialities, and contextualize the magnitude, quality and commitment to CSR.
CSR is about communicating an image and a corporation’s values as much as it is about doing good. In its true sense, CSR is far from being a liability; it taps on the one intangible segment of any business and that is social capital. It is a form of communication as much as it is a way of doing business. To label it “greenwashing” is to neglect the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between businesses and society.