Moving CSR from a cost to ‘fair’ profit centre

In an increasingly connected world, where political upheaval and environmental challenges are gathering pace, there’s pressure on business to adapt.

As a result, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more and more relevant – even critical – to the success of businesses of all sizes. The problem is, it’s commonly misunderstood, and its power underestimated. So dismiss it at your peril.

So what is CSR? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about feel-good activities, being ‘green’ and generating good PR. It can actually underpin the whole culture of your business and how you see and demonstrate your role in the local or even global community. But equally, it can create ‘fair’ profit for the business, as I’ll touch on below – the question is, are you prepared to harness its potential, as many of your competitors are doubtless already doing?

So forget the name for now (because it’s confusing). It’s not just about big Corporates. To SME owners, managers and employees, it can help you become more competitive and make the most out of your biggest assets. CSR should be considered as a lens to improve your organisation’s commercial radar to spot innovation, new opportunities and avoid risk. Far more than ticking green boxes or charitable moral offsetting.

The business case? Well let’s look at two success stories. Let’s start with a current poster child, good old Marks & Spencer, a high street retailer leading from the front with its ‘Plan A’ strategy. It was launched at the start of a recession (with a £200 million investment) to support a 100-point plan, aiming to tackle increasing pressure on our planet’s finite resources, rising social inequality, and the need for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles in the developed world. To date, Plan A has included the launch of Eco stores across the UK, the Oxfam Clothes Exchange and raising over £3 million for local and national charities including Macmillan Cancer. All good, responsible stuff. But guess what – Plan A has delivered an earlier than expected £50 million return triggering further investment by delivering brand value and smarter ways of sustainable working.

For small business too, evolving into a green business can have lasting benefits. The Bingham – a Grade II listed hotel in Richmond on Thames – took the decision to ‘go green’ when refurbishing the hotel in 2004. But being an old building posed many challenges and in 2008 the owners approached Green Tourism for London for advice and technical help on issues including energy efficiency, water conservation and marketing ‘green’ events. This approach has helped win new contracts including from Google, eBay, PepsiCo and Coca Cola who have all used The Bingham in recent years. But it’s not just multi-national businesses that have been attracted; local customers have been enthusiastic in their response, scoring the hotel’s environmental policy and green initiatives well on customer feedback forms and there are plans for more green events in future.

OK, so not every CSR approach will generate such significant or tangible value, but the untapped potential is there, in every business. The keys to maximising CSR-related value include being strategic, innovating, collaborating and communicating effectively. It really isn’t rocket science but you will need to make time to stop, learn, consider and plan with appropriate knowledgeable support.

Through learning and collaboration you should be using CSR to consider:

•    how new or refined products can demonstrate a stronger social or environmental benefit and appeal to your customers
•    the benefits of communicating your good deeds more effectively through building relationships with industry influencers. And how brand recognition could help you open up different channels that will enable you to reach receptive new audiences for your products or services
•    how a positive CSR strategy can help you attract and retain the best employee talent
•    innovative uses of existing or spare resources (including cash, product, intellectual property, employees, land/premises, social relationships) and how these can be used for new revenue streams or public good
•    the value of charitable and social enterprise relationships – not just in terms of positive PR but also in building lasting longer-term relationships

The stats tell a story too. 94% of consumers expect business to ‘give back’. UK ethical markets alone climbed (again) to £47bn last year. And with ever-increasing environmental legislation, CSR has become far more of an essential than a ‘nice to have’ approach.

So what’s your next move? Well, my advice would be to make a point to explore how CSR is relevant to your business today, tomorrow, and beyond. I guarantee you’ll discover that CSR offers new opportunities to boost profit in a fair and socially responsible way, adding value to both your brand and bottom line that you may not have considered.