Companies must think through CSR

When I see a Body Shop, I find it hard to resist the urge to chop down a tree, so I’m not the best person to comment on corporate social responsibility. I’m not proud of the feeling, but there is something irritating about the way CSR practitioners and supporters bang on.

There was a sense of this in a recent report from Christian Aid. The charity called it Behind the Mask, which seemed to suggest big business uses CSR as a PR shield. It is no coincidence, the charity claims, that the biggest public champions of CSR operate in areas such as oil, tobacco and mining. The purpose of this reporting, it seems to suggest, is merely to put a favourable PR gloss on a company’s activities while it can be as dastardly as ever away from the public eye.

If only this was true. It would at least suggest that companies had thought through why they have CSR policies. My criticism would be the opposite: that huge efforts are often put into producing reports without anyone having a clear idea of why they are there or what the company hopes to get out of it. Furthermore, companies are in danger of straying beyond their mandate when they put schools and hospitals into some of the poorer countries where they operate. Well-intentioned though such gestures are, they cut across the role of local governments.

Nigel Whittaker, whose firm ReputationInc works in this area, reckons much of the problem comes from the word ‘social’. Talk about corporate responsibility, he says, and the emphasis changes. Companies stop saying ‘look at us; we’re trying to be good’ and say ‘look at us; we want a licence to operate’, that licence being rooted in the public acceptance and acceptability of the company and what it does, not just in the narrow base of shareholder approval. The cost of not having this licence becomes all too apparent in the damage that can be done to the business when something goes wrong.

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