Social responsibility to the fore, in the caring sharing 21st century

IT’S that time of year when greed and excessiveness are all-consuming. We overdo everything during the festive period: gift-giving, eating, drinking, partying (now, be honest, I’m sure it’s not just me).

So it’s quite a good time to consider Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Giving something back is a big thing with me. I’m sure you’ve heard me bleating on about it before.

But apparently, CSR is the next big thing to sweep change through current business practices. A recent survey has revealed that 82% of UK professionals would consider turning down a lucrative job offer if the company failed to share their own personal values. Ninety nine percent said whether a company behaves responsibly or not is a matter of concern to them. And more than 50% of the 225 workers questioned claimed they chose the company they work for on the basis of what it does and what it stands for.

The findings are the basis of Corporate Nirvana – Is The Future Socially Responsible? and are set to cause a paradigm shift in the way businesses recruit and retain employees in the future.

So major corporates are being forced to consider their ethical positions, and attempt to align social and environmental responsibilities alongside profitability. In the States, not surprisingly, CSR has already taken a grip. Back home, however, we’re a bit slower to follow suit.

The Co-operative Bank is slightly ahead of the game: it pledges to invest only in ethical regimes and companies.

And a new brand of chocolate was launched late last year aimed at ensuring fair play for the cocoa growers of Ghana. Backed by Comic Relief, Dubble is aimed at seven year olds, and a free educational pack was distributed to schoolchildren in this country about the life of a Ghanaian farmer.

Comedian Billy Connolly promotes Tickety-Boo Tea – “The Chari-tea with a smile”. This company harvests only from progressive tea gardens that outlaw exploitation, pay fair wages and ban child labour.

A few cracking examples of Fair Trading. But the sad fact is that only 4% of FTSE’s top-listed 350 companies report their social performance and partnerships.

The balance between being ethically responsible and profitable is a fine one. And some companies find it easier to sit on the fence, dipping in and out of CSR when it suits, and hoping that no one will notice they’re not giving 100%.

Look at Taylors of Harrogate, who produce a huge range of excellent coffees. They also have a “Feel Good” blend, which claims to be an ethically responsible product. But all the blurb about social responsibility and helping coffee bean farmers in far-off countries doesn’t ring true when the package sitting next to it on the supermarket shelf – produced by the same company – is grown and harvested in the traditional way.

So we’re faced with a huge challenge. In an economic climate where finding and retaining skilled employees is becoming increasingly difficult, businesses will be forced to reconsider their values and business principles if they want to succeed.

I’m sure big businesses will find it easier, they can throw a few million at the problem, find some poor country needing help, and salve their consciences until the pressure to be ethically responsible dies down.

But I don’t think it’s going away. CSR is not a bolt-on solution. It has to come from the heart of the company, it has to reflect the company’s own values, it has to make a difference, and it has to be consistent.

So for SMEs, the bulk of businesses in the UK, the challenge is considerable. It’s the proverbial Catch-22 situation: you want to make a difference, but you need money. To make money you need employees. To get your employees you need to be making a difference.

Consider the advantages. In addition to attracting high calibre people, there’s a lot of publicity to be generated from introducing ethical business practices that could save your company money from the PR or marketing budget.

Plus, you can look at yourself in the mirror every morning with a clear conscience knowing that you have done your best to make a difference. You are giving something back.

When I wrote this 10 years ago, there were only a few companies with a CSR strategy. Now it’s much more common, but has it become “the expected thing to do” rather than the thing to do because you have a genuine desire to make a difference? I’d love to hear what you think.