These three words raise a lot of questions, but first a definition. CSR includes how companies address the environment, the communities they operate in, and the wellbeing of society as a whole. It’s big business. Large companies go to considerable efforts to communicate their CSR activities.
Twenty years ago Nestlé made Nescafė and that was that. Now there is the Nescafė Plan, covering Responsible Farming, Responsible Production and Responsible Consumption. British Airways explains how it orders new fuel-efficient planes and how they make efforts to recycle on-board waste. Vodafone, my employer, runs the Vodafone Foundation; one of its activities is to provide emergency communications equipment in areas hit by a natural disaster. All the above companies also operate schemes whereby employees can volunteer in the community.
The consciousness of the world’s consumers has changed. People are more aware and they expect their brands to understand this. As employees the same people expect their employers to act responsibly. Leaders of some companies believe the company’s purpose is more than creation of shareholder value. What about the creation of shareholder value, the prime purpose of any business? Would companies undertake CSR activity if it reduced profit, but benefitted society? Would an airline buy a highly-fuel efficient plane if the Total Cost of Ownership over its life was 20% higher (due to a higher upfront cost)? Would Nestlé sell its coffee in lighter glass if the cost was higher?
Why do companies offer their staff the chance to work in the community and why do many employees like doing this? We are wired to want to help, to serve; indeed that is what many of us do every day at work. We hear the term ‘give back’. Community work is good for team spirit. I wonder if people have a desire to give much more, but that the current economic model somehow restricts them.
I do believe CSR is a good thing; it does reflect a change in consumer expectations. I somehow wish companies would tell both sides of the story. Let’s face it, planes pollute, a Big Mac isn’t great for your health, 20 Marlboros are best left on the shelf. Maybe CSR plus honesty and transparency is the answer.