What's the point of CSR?

Businesses are more concerned about the impact on their brand than actually doing good.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 09 Feb 2016

For many businesses, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a series of meaningless buzzwords, like ‘caring’, ‘sharing’, and ‘authentic,’ lamented Matthew Taylor in a recent column for MT. New research suggests he might have a point.

Just 28% of leaders of large British companies believe that CSR is a ‘central driver of modern business success,’ and 38% said while it is important to consider, it is not vital, according to research published by investment firm Kohli Ventures today. That could all depend on one’s definition of success, of course. Short-term profits? Long-term growth? Creating ‘happiness’?

The research, conducted by YouGov, also asked those leaders who do participate in CSR schemes what motivated them to do so. Although 58% said it was their ‘duty’, by far the most popular answer (on 75%) was that it ‘helps our branding’, and 30% said they measured the value of their CSR programme based on its ability to raise their company's profile. And people say business is cynical...

It certainly seems as though CSR has been on the back burner since the financial crash, which forced businesses to jettison what they view as non-essential spending. But the likes of Unilever, whose boss Paul Polman has an obsessive commitment to sustainability, are still fighting the good fight. What’s more, a generation of younger, supposedly more socially conscious workers is thought to be forcing big companies to think again.

There are some signs of this in the research. Though a majority of workers said a company’s CSR policy was unimportant when choosing where to work, only a foolish employer would ignore the 24% who said it was. Most businesses (57%) said the youth of today are more interested in CSR than previous generations.

Perhaps the biggest problem with CSR is the way it is treated as an add-on, rather than a way of doing business. Asked what programmes their company participated in, many cited things like time donation (48%) and skill donation (30%) – where employees are allowed time off to work on a charitable project to help those in need.

But CSR needs to be about more than volunteering or giving cash. A company whose staff spend a couple of days a year in a soup kitchen but the rest of their time fleecing customers and destroying the environment can hardly be called responsible.

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