City & Corporate: CSR should be at top of PR agenda

One of the side effects of the recession is that consumers have become more price conscious.

There has been a migration of shoppers towards cheaper ranges. Sales of supermarket own brands are on the up; premium brands are under pressure. Customers are turning away from organic lines and products that sell at premium prices because of sustainability claims in their production.

This has echoes elsewhere. Money-conscious companies have quietly downgraded CSR activities. Their argument is that it would be damaging in PR terms to be seen to give thousands of pounds to charity or to sponsor the arts if at the same time they are sacking people. But those trying to raise money say the opposite - that it is precisely at a time of economic distress that companies should be aware of their social responsibilities and would benefit in PR terms from being seen to continue to help.

This also poses a challenge for companies who have earlier positioned themselves at the heart of the sustainability debate and now find that in sales terms at least they are getting little public credit for it. Foodvest, the parent company of Findus and Young's frozen foods, is one of these, as befits one of the major operators in the fish industry in Europe.

Last week, its corporate affairs and sustainability director James Turton tackled head on the issue of whether the company should save money in this recession by abandoning its sustainability goals or whether it should stick with them in spite of apparent public indifference and lack of obvious PR benefit.

His core point was one that the comms industry can sometimes overlook. It is that sustainability is not marketing gloss or PR hype. To be credible, and to engender the necessary levels of trust in the outside world, sustainability needs to be rooted in the business. The credit crunch may delay it, but it will not stop the environment being a key issue. Now is absolutely the time to be staking out the high ground, because when the customers do come back that is where you will want the business to be.

- Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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