Rebecca Fay talks about the role of CSR in business 


What is the role of CSR?

In a recent post by Marc Gunther about the role of CSR in business, he begins with the proposition “Maybe it’s time to do away with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Not merely the words and the idea but the infrastructure: CSR departments, CSR reports, CSR conferences and CSR executives.”

Essentially, his argument is that by having a CSR department a business is not ensuring its impact on the world is integral to how it runs. It remains peripheral.

I understand and agree with Gunther’s overall point and objective but there are plenty of CSR departments who are focused on driving the business forward, in addition to making a positive impact on the environment. If CSR is going to continue, that is how it needs to evolve.

There are plenty of CSR departments and Environmental managers who, because of their focus on the development and implementation of sustainability programmes, are leading the way in demonstrating the value to business these programmes will deliver. It is down to people in these roles, dedicated to understanding the opportunities and challenges presented by cutting carbon emissions, changing behaviour and reducing their negative impact on the environment and communities, that sustainability becomes integral to the way the company is run.

For instance, Swedish Bank, SEB has a department responsible for corporate sustainability, including environment and CSR. That department delivers on a comprehensive range of commitments such as a target to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2015. SEB is, in the words of its senior advisor on corporate sustainability, Klas Eklund, ‘Thinking like Pippi Longstocking – he who is very strong must also be very kind.’ President and Chief Executive Officer, Annika Falkengren explains: “We want to be the trusted partner for customers with aspirations and know that we must meet increasingly higher expectations on responsible corporate behaviour if we want to remain successful.” It is just because of SEB’s understanding of how its role in society must develop, that it requires a team to focus on driving that change throughout the business.

And over in South Africa at car rental company Avis, the appointment of someone to focus on environmental programmes is precisely what enabled the company to demonstrate its commitment to reducing its impact and to ensure a comprehensive programme was put in place and, crucially, implemented. The whole-hearted support of the CEO was obviously key to Avis South Africa’s success by ensuring the concept was at the heart of its strategy. But, without a dedicated sustainability role to create and implement the programmes, how could they be sure they delivered?

To my mind, these businesses, and many like them, demonstrate that the argument is not so much about whether the role of CSR should exist, but more about what the role of CSR is. It should not be seen as a philanthropic exercise, but instead as a centre of excellence and knowledge that enables a business to fully understand how to become more sustainable and what value sustainability will deliver.

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Rebecca Fay

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