Understanding the Benefits of CSR

This week, I spoke on the panel “ROI and the Triple Bottom Line: Can Companies Do Well by Doing Good?,” the first webinar in a series by Social Media Today. I shared thoughts on how to understand the benefits of CSR, and here’s what I covered.

First, the basics: What is CSR? CSR is the integration of environmental, social, and good governance practices into everything that business does, and the recognition of material aspects of nonfinancial issues that are integral to overall strategy and operations. These two ideas came from BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer and UN Global Compact Executive Director Georg Kell at the recent public debate on CSR. This definition is useful given the varying semantics out there: ESG, people-planet-profit, corporate citizenship, triple-bottom line. A recent paper found at least 37 different CSR definitions.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand the “constructs” of CSR in order to recognize its benefits:

  • Activities: Corporate responsibility activities can lead to concrete and even quick returns on investment. There are specific activities or projects—for example, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency—that can save a sizeable percentage of energy costs. Such returns can be found everywhere, from conserving water to using better materials. BSR’s factory-based women’s health initiative, HERproject, has also showed that people-related initiatives can lead to real, measurable benefits.
  • Systems: More generally, organization-wide management systems that embrace corporate responsibility often lead to better decision making, and ultimately a more economically efficient organization. Such systems include increasing transparency (e.g. through CSR and climate reporting); better governance (e.g. ensuring that the board has a sufficiently sophisticated view of risks and opportunities, and that incentives throughout the organization are mutually reinforcing); and systematic discourse with external stakeholders. Like with other company systems, such as marketing or HR, the direct results of better systems may be intangible, since it is more about creating a new platform for making investments than the return itself.
  • Vision: Finally, there is the broad potential of aligning society and business, which is found in optimistic sentiments like, “Our goals are to make money, make it ethically, and make a difference,” (GE’s corporate citizenship website) as well as its criticisms, such as Milton Friedman’s manifesto and Aneel Karnani’s recent case against CSR. Such statements of vision offer some of the most colorful discussions on CSR, though they are more inspirational than concrete in appraising impact one way or the other. One thing that is firm, however, is that CSR—as defined by Cramer and Kell above—is part of a long-term trend whereby companies that effectively manage greater accountability and complexity are likely to succeed.

That fact that CSR offers so many different types of benefits is one reason that it is stronger now than before the recession, and, as BSR recently found, why companies are planning to increase CSR budgets next year. As this important conversation about the benefits of CSR evolves, I look forward to continuing the discussion.

First posted at BSR.

BSR Kicks Off New Energy Management Collaboration…and Just in Time

I’ve just returned from China where I attended the launch of BSR’s Energy Efficiency Partnership (EEP), a working group of 11 member companies working with 80 of their suppliers on energy management.

Participants discussed the many reasons why this is an important—and urgent—issue for their companies. Starbucks’ Director of Ethical Sourcing Kelly Goodejohn explained in an opening presentation that climate change poses a substantial threat to coffee, the company’s core business, and that energy management is the most direct thing they can do to stop greenhouse gases (GHG).

Felix Ockborn, a member of H&M’s Far East CSR Program Development team, relayed that working with suppliers to mitigate climate change impacts is vital to H&M’s CSR strategy because the issue is important to its customers. He also said that it is a fundamental part of working toward sustainable use of natural resources in H&M’s value chain.

The one issue, however, on everyone’s mind was the recent pressure from the Chinese government to curb energy waste, which resulted in the mandatory closure of more than 2,000 factories and the shutdown of power to companies in major manufacturing provinces like Jiangsu and Anhui. This obviously has a major impact on companies: An auto-components maker reported that it had to slow production, and a cement factory said it would have trouble meeting orders and likely lose work in progress.

The shutdowns are part of China’s efforts to meet its current five-year plan commitment to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent from 2005 levels. All signs indicate that such pressure will increase: The next five-year plan (due out soon) is likely to include even more stringent targets, and last year’s goal to reduce GHG emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 will also warrant additional measures.

EEP member, HP, has been keeping a close eye on these kinds of developments. Ernest Wong, Manager of HP’s Social and Environmental Responsibility Supply Chain program, said it’s important for factory managers to have tools for energy management so that they can understand their exposure and communicate their situation. In turn, explained Wong, it’s important for companies like HP to have a good picture of how suppliers can have better energy-saving plans and use energy management to minimize their carbon footprints.

We have a lot of exciting work to do. From helping executives in the board room understand the impacts of and options for energy efficiency to enabling managers on the shop floor to take action, I look forward to working with EEP to explore how companies can get the most out of energy management and raise awareness about the importance of working with suppliers to conserve energy.

First posted at BSR.