‘In this month’s Bottom Line’, says my editor, ‘I’d like your comment on CSR’.
‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, he helpfully adds, presumably to ensure I don’t spend the next three days researching the Czech Socialist Republic.
‘What is it, and could UK businesses be doing more? And don’t be frightened to say what you really think.’
‘I’m on it,’ I say, retrieving my chewing gum from the underside of the meeting room table.
ATG (According To Google) CSR is about 10.3 million different things. It’s businesses giving back to society. It’s developing people and proper processes. It’s activating sustainable profit centres, it’s workers’ rights and community-focused behaviours, it’s transparent supply chains, ethical codes of practice, and all sorts of other frightfully important incomprehensibabble. CSR is basically whatever your business wants it to be. In my own personal experience, it’s three words that look great cut and pasted onto your corporate homepage – but then I am the cynical type.
Anyway, for now I’m settling on this little gem from Making Good Business Sense by Lord Holme and Richard Watts (2001).
‘A CSR strategy provides the opportunity to demonstrate the human face of a business.’
I like that. In the dark shadow of last year’s Libor scandal and with the taste of dodgy horse-lasagna fresh on our lips, there’s something about businesses behaving like good human beings that strikes a chord. Businesses are, after all, just a collection of people doing stuff.
Which started me thinking about my editor’s second question. Exactly sixty years after the term CSR was coined, why aren’t all UK businesses able to make the thing work?
Well here’s my theory. CSR is a top-down and bottom-up concept. While the business leaders set the agenda, it’s the employees who take responsibility for putting the plan into action. They live CSR. They make policies and drive profit. They shape recruitment strategy. They think before they print. They avoid bribery and corruption. They don’t put leftover falafel in the plastic recyclables bin.
In other words, you can’t have proper Corporate Social Responsibility without responsible employees. The employees are the nose and eyes and ears on the human face of the business. And the business needs each of those individuals to join together in ‘doing the right thing’ for its people, the environment and the community.
It follows that only if each individual is morally and ethically upstanding on a personal level, can a business fully embrace and act on its social responsibilities. You can’t have CSR without personal social responsibility. Call it PSR, if you like.
So as I’m sitting here, staring out of the cafe window, watching apparently educated people dropping empty crisp packets on the kerb, parking their fuel-guzzling 4WDs on zebra crossings, fly-tipping old mattresses into bus shelters and engaging in lord-knows-what other anti-social behaviour, I’m wondering if the way people act in their personal lives is part of the answer to my editor’s question.
Until society is fixed, until we’re all socially responsible on a personal level, can we really expect all UK businesses to become beacons of good?
When I think of CSR, I think of my plumber. A self-employed German living in London. Ten years ago, he spent thousands of pounds learning how to fit solar panels to residential buildings, so that we could all experience the joys of cheaper power whilst doing our bit for the environment. CSR personified, was Tom. The human face of his own business.
And today, how many solar panel orders have come his way? One. Tells a story, don’t you think?