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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives attract the disdain of many a sceptic. The United Nations’ ‘Global Compact’ initiative provides a five-step guide for businesses to align their strategies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an initiative that Nestlé, Unilever and numerous other companies of varying sizes have publicly signed up to. But corporate efforts to move towards sustainable practices are still frequently perceived as token gestures. Human rights advocates and environmental activists circle above community- and environment-focused initiatives like watchful hawks, ready to condemn and call out any CSR rhetoric that might legitimise and/or divert attention from harmful corporate agendas.
For some hard core activists, business is seen as the enemy of non-profits’ work. Yet here at Communication for Development Ltd (CfD), we work with both sectors. What is most important to us is the use of visual communications to further and support an organisation’s laudable efforts to effect change for the better. We remain vigilant about who we’ll work with, though. We’ve learnt to look out for the five key elements discussed in this article, as we feel they demonstrate that a CSR project is substantial, effective and worth its salt.
Effective CSR means companies have to go beyond compliance in looking after the environment and the communities alongside which they operate.
“Sustainability sells!”, our Engagement Manager remembers an ex-boss telling his three new, recently-graduated, freshly picked and illusion-filled employees. Her first job after finishing her undergraduate degree was at a publishing house. The company’s founder took that phrase as his mantra as he went about commissioning and editing articles for two trade magazines related to sustainable business. Back then in the early noughties, even in our girl’s eagerness to succeed in her first ‘proper’ job, it was clear to her that for many of the businesses advertising among these publications’ pages, it was very much about jumping on a sustainability bandwagon that was pulled by a carriage of buzzwords. Recently perusing the sustainability portfolios on dozens of companies’ websites, she found that while this may still be true in some cases, things have moved on significantly.
At Communication for Development Ltd, we’re careful about which organisations we work with, their ethics, the impact of their development-focused projects and – most importantly – the way they seek to portray the people they serve. Our clientele is divided between non-profit development-oriented organisations on the one hand and CSR units from the private sector on the other. We are equally discerning across both of these categories, recognising that badly-run humanitarian responses and government-funded arms trading exist alongside shockingly polluting, human rights abusing companies. But when it comes to CSR and accountable business, the landscape is slightly less easy to navigate, as it’s riddled with misdirected funds, incorrect signage, dead ends and the potholes of hidden agendas. Each one of these aspects makes it easy for corporate PR professionals to fall off the bandwagon.
Even business leaders themselves admit this. For instance, ex-BP Chief Executive Lord Browne warned that CSR is all too often a “plaything” for business, and “a very dangerous crutch”. In his keynote speech at the Advertising Association’s annual LEAD summit this year, he recognised that the shortcomings and failings of CSR projects in recent years had damaged the credibility of businesses’ society- and environment-focused messaging.
Despite this negative portrayal, there are so many fantastic and commendable CSR initiatives out there. Mallen Baker
, an award-winning British CSR blogger, makes a powerful yet well-balanced case for the role the private sector can play in social and economic development, asserting that full of pragmatic, non-ideological, change-friendly organisations with plentiful resources and strong problem-solving abilities, business has great potential to be part of the solution. Still, he reminds us that it’s unhelpful to set our expectations too high:
CSR is about companies taking responsibility for their social and environmental impact, and taking action beyond compliance to do so. It is not, and has never pretended to be, a system that can protect us from genuinely corrupt and evil leadership. That’s what we have laws for.
It’s undoubtedly difficult for the public to know when to trust the sustainability rhetoric. How do we wheedle out the ‘greenwash’ and token gestures from the genuinely well-intended, value-driven projects of substance? To help us retain our own ethical standards, we’ve learnt to identify five key elements that usually indicate authenticity, tangibility and benevolent intention. Here, we drawn on Marks and Spencer’s much-heralded and rightfully praised CSR scheme, Plan A, to illustrate these lessons, as well as those of a couple of others.
In the past, many businesses jumped on the sustainability bandwagon by throwing buzzwords around, making token gestures and ‘greenwashing’ their PR. Thankfully, we see plentiful evidence that things have come a long way since then.
1. Building sustainability into the core of the business model
The difference between a company that allocates a budget to constructing schools in Africa in the name of ‘responsible business’, and a company that actually educates and invests in upskilling its African raw material suppliers, is self-evident. Building responsible, sustainable initiatives into the core of a business model can equate to meaningful change, rather than superficial, misaligned PR.
First prize for instilling responsible practices into the heart of a business model goes to innovative, solution-focused enterprises, like the phenomenal bio-bean
, a manufacturing firm that extracts biofuel from used coffee grounds. In fact, CSR is rendered almost obsolete by the game-changing nature of the company’s business process: recycling 50,000 tonnes of coffee grounds per year from the UK’s outlets and creating an alternative to fossil fuels as an output. Its founder, Arthur Kay, became the youngest ever winner of the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Innovator of the Year award in 2015, when he was aged just 24.
Obviously, the majority of businesses are not born out of a desire to really change our lifestyles or methods of interacting with the planet. Most have to work at injecting responsible practices into their models and processes. Still, with the existence of support schemes like the UN Global Compact
, as well as a wide range of sustainability consultancies, this is getting easier. Marks and Spencer’s ‘Plan A’
is a fine example of how CSR can be woven into every layer of business and catalyse real changes instead of superficial ones. In 2007, Plan A’s orchestrator, Mike Barry, set out to review every aspect of M&S’s business, from recruitment to rewards and customer service to supply chains. 100 resulting commitments were formulated and the company set itself a deadline of five years to achieve each of them. These were recently reviewed with a view to meeting 100 more commitments by 2020, spanning everything from food waste reduction and sustainable fish sourcing, to improving conditions for garment producers and supporting farmers in facing climate change. While many companies limit their CSR to one or two key areas, M&S aims to tick all the boxes across its entire business.
Bio bean annually recycles 50,000 tonnes of the UK’s used coffee grounds and turns it into biofuel. For inventing this sustainability-driven business model, its founder won the Guardian’s 2015 Sustainable Business Innovator of the Year award.
2. Applying CSR principles locally and internally It’s fantastic to see companies forming charitable foundations and supporting some great causes, both at home and overseas; but how do their own working environments stand up to scrutiny? Even for multinational giants, the local carbon footprint of their offices and the health and wellbeing of their employees has to be a starting point. We believe that an organisation should practise what it preaches. Whether it’s cycle to work schemes or reusable mugs (not throwaway plastic) in the staff canteen, employees and internal processes should be the first to benefit from responsible business practices.
As part of Plan A, M&S has looked at how it can support its UK-based farmer-suppliers in producing food locally, passing rigorous organic audits and ensuring animal welfare. As well as ensuring its suppliers are happy, its Women’s Network provides an internal platform to promote the progress of female employees, enable networking and draw on women role models’ successes.
Alongside these innovations, Mike Barry’s team has invested in overseas suppliers as well. They’ve devised a buying tool which references the living wage in its garment sourcing countries, such as Bangladesh, to inform a review of its spending on factories. In addition, half a million workers have so far been trained in employment rights and financial literacy, which has obvious community-strengthening trickle down benefits. These laudable changes have resulted in an 85% reduction in worker absenteeism and a corresponding increase in productivity.
As part of Plan A, M&S works closely with its UK-based farmer-suppliers to achieve locally grown, animal-friendly, organic food products for its shelves.
3. Focus on related social issues
Now let’s think about marketing. Responsible marketing was overlooked by many CSR units in the past, but companies are thankfully now being held accountable for the messaging behind their products that they impart to impressionable consumers. Whether it’s done via a billboard, social media or television, there are often wider social issues tied up with publicising products, such as promoting sugary foods to children amidst increased society-wide obesity levels, or perpetuating the idea of a ‘perfect body’ to young girls.
Here, we’d like to commend Dove’s Free Being Me
campaign, run in collaboration with the World Associate of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). Dove has capitalised on existing groups of Girl Guides, and also on the organisation’s global scope, as it provides a platform for delivering self-esteem training courses and raising awareness about appearance-related anxiety, such as through a body confidence themed festival in India. In keeping with existing Girl Guides methods, a Free Being Me badge was created for its members to work towards. In the past, Dove has been criticised for using super slim female models in its soap advertisements, so this marks a turning point in responsible marketing.
Taken from the Free Being Me facilitators’ pack, this exercise for seven- to ten-year-old girls involves passing a ball of wool around the group while telling the others how they’ve shared a body confidence message. The final pattern that’s created reminds participants of their connection with other girls around the world and helps to build solidarity.
4. Honesty and technical guidance
Openness, honesty and humility seem to be key to effective CSR initiatives and outcomes. As a concept, CSR is underscored by complex global issues, so merely throwing money at a chosen charity or problem is not enough. We believe that effective sustainability practices need to be research-driven, informed by open dialogue with relevant stakeholders and ideally carried out in partnership with those who know what they’re doing. This is especially essential when a company’s CSR project enters a realm that’s alien to its normal business sphere.
It’s also important to be honest about limitations, and to seek technical guidance where necessary, as M&S did for its sustainable cotton and fishing initiatives. In collaboration with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
and the WWF
(World Wide Fund for Nature), Plan A includes a goal to source 50% of the cotton used in the company’s products sustainably by 2020, something it had already achieved for a third of its cotton garments by 2014. Doing so would be tough without guidance on cotton standards from the BCI, and without expertise in managing projects and brokering local partnerships overseas from the WWF. When one considers that it can take up to 2,700 litres of water to produce just one cotton T-shirt, Plan A’s focus on enabling and educating raw material producers really shines out.
5. Engaging in the bigger picture What shows authenticity more than dedicating time to teaching others about a cause? It’s Mike Barry’s work outside M&S that’s really demonstrated that this man means business, so to speak. Voted winner of the Guardian’s 2011 Sustainable Business Innovator award, Mike was commended for lecturing at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainable Leadership, participating in Business in the Community’s May Day Network (which encourages companies to unite to tackle climate change) and sitting on the Board at the World Environment Centre. He is quoted as saying that CSR is “about taking action beyond compliance”. Indeed, his efforts to drive sustainability up the wider business agenda demonstrate that, far from the empty and superficial CSR gestures of some other companies, the work of M&S’s Plan A is serious and meaningful. Such leaders inspire genuine, well-thought-out change, and remind us that value-driven business is vital for our planet’s future.
Mike Barry lectures on how to develop sustainable supply chains at Cambridge University’s Annual Conference for the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability.
Should you wish to delve deeper into examining the social and environmental policies of private sector players, the Manchester-based cooperative The Ethical Consumer has some useful resources and information. These include an ethical rating system that ranks companies against criteria that include animal welfare, ethical financial management, environmental impact, workers’ rights and supply chain matters. Its aim is to simplify choices for conscious consumers. Meanwhile, the SDG Compass guides businesses on how to incorporate measures designed to help ensure the SDGs are met into their core strategies.