CSR now needs to earn its keep

Getting an urge to chop down a tree every time I pass a Body Shop outlet might not make me the best person to comment on corporate social responsibility, though as a partial defence I would claim it was an antipathy to the late Anita Roddick rather than the concept that fuelled the aversion.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

In her defence there can be no doubt that she was an effective pioneer whose work brought home to the wider business world the gains to be made from adopting a credible stance on social issues. It is at least in part down to her that these days almost every company of note has CSR policies and programmes.

The intriguing question is how well will this spending survive the credit crunch, and in PR terms how will companies explain the cutbacks I suspect they will soon begin to make?

Some might question as bold the assumption that the programmes will come under pressure as companies feel the squeeze but too many people in this country have no experience of what happens in a recession and are perhaps still in denial about some of the likely impacts. When times get hard things that are nice to have get ditched in favour of things one needs.

On the consumer front there are now quite regular stories that tell how shoppers are shunning organic produce in supermarkets in favour of cheaper options and how they are trading down from branded to own-label goods. Similarly, while support for policies on climate change remains strong, people are becoming more reluctant to agree to anything that is likely to cost them more money - which is almost everything.

It is only a matter of time before finance directors demand economies from line managers in businesses across the land - and they most likely will look first to see what will be cut without damaging the fabric of the business. And this will be the test for CSR programmes.

If companies have seen these as predominantly a PR exercise then the cuts will come. If companies believe CSR is part of what a company should do to maintain its licence to operate then they should survive.

By their actions shall they be judged.

 

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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