Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: Debunking the myth and mystery.

There are certain business phrases and adjectives that conjure very specific meanings…strategic planning, supply chain management, auditing, risk assessment…the list goes on.

And then there is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). What is it, really?

Via attendance of the V Summit of the Americas regional Civil Society Forum held in October 2008, we learned from many grassroots organizations the trials and tribulations of dealing with the public and private sectors. At the end of this two-day forum we were advised, via serendipitous conversations, to merge the civil and the commercial via CSR, and to do so via the South Trinidad Chamber of Industry and Commerce (STCIC). Triumph International was already a member of the STCIC by this time, so after a talk with the organization’s CEO Dr. Thackwray Driver, the natural next step for Triumph was to join the STCIC’s CSR committee – so said so done. And thus the unraveling of what Corporate Social Responsibility really is began.

We, like 99% of the global private sector, considered CSR to be akin to corporate philanthropy or employee voluntarism. The good company writes a check for $$$ to a chosen charity, and then calls out employees for a community day activity, with corporate communications standing by. In short CSR = Corporate Giving = Public Relations.

At best, a strong internal CSR policy will naturally attract external attention and promotion, and would leave a company in a stable financial state to contribute to corporate giving if it so desires. At worst, this misconception of equating CSR policy solely with corporate giving, known as “greenwashing,” can lead to disastrous repercussions. A company with very weak internal controls that uses philanthropy and corporate communications to “spin” an image is soon to fail. And we have seen many of these large corporations fall between 2007 to present!

So if Corporate Social Responsibility does not equal corporate philanthropy or image marketing, what can CSR possibly represent?

We shall forget the expert opinions and jargon for now. What comes to mind when one thinks of the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility? A business behaving responsibly within a social context. So then, what is responsible behavior really? Let us equate a corporation to an individual to answer this question. A responsible person has proper management over many aspects – health, education, finances, home – and such a person usually follows a life track that adds value both to one’s life and thus to the lives of others.

From this example, we see that behaving responsibly starts internally and individually, and then naturally emanates out to one’s environs. Of course while growing internally many others are simultaneously involved in one’s life – teachers, mentors, parents, spouse, children, the taxman, the spiritual counselor. These are stakeholders in one’s life, with whom interaction is constant, consistent and dynamic. If an individual who ignores internal growth and behaves irresponsibly either hurts, or is punished by one of these stakeholders.

And there we have what truly defines CSR: strong, sustainable, internal company growth, while dealing transparently with and learning from an intertwined network of stakeholders.

Now so many of us have come to understand CSR as philanthropy, that this concept may be very hard to integrate, but really this is great news! What this new revelation signifies is that all the effort put forth into strategic, pro-active internal planning is mostly CSR and Corporate Governance. There is no more need for a business, large or small, to feel pressured into writing a cheque to meet “CSR” requirements, or to suddenly need to ramp up Marketing & Advertising only for a better CSR image. All that is necessary is that a business takes care of the fundamentals of operations, while dynamically sharing its updated processes with all necessary stakeholders. In even simpler terms, charity truly begins at home.

Pro-active planning, from waste disposal & recycling to business continuity planning, crisis management is a factor of effective CSR, especially if:

1. This planning and implementation is done consistently
2. All levels of the organization participate in such planning/implementation
3. All pertinent external bodies (regulatory, grassroots, and media) are immediately informed of such planning and implementation.

One may comment though, what about the “Social” aspect of CSR. Does this now get redefined as well? We refer to an anecdote from bpTT, a multinational (MNE) energy company we had the pleasure of interviewing in Trinidad, as part of the STCIC CSR Committee. This MNE, now a true expert in CSR and Corporate Governance, consults on these subjects. In one instance a consulting client complained of not having knowing how to implement a CSR Policy, yet this client already had an extensive, ongoing, co-partner training program with a local university to fast-track students into assured employment positions. This is a sound example of a sustainable “Social” corporate practice.

And here we see the word “sustainable.” CSR International, a leading expert on Corporate Governance, has mandated that “CSR” stand for Corporate Sustainable Responsibility, thus calling this new paradigm CSR 2.0. We at Triumph International have taken it a step further by coining CSR into SCG…Sustainable Corporate Governance, hereby removing the “airy-fairy,” green-washed stigma attached to the stereotypical Corporate Social Responsibility misnomer. SCG fully encompasses internal corporate strengthening, thereby being an inspiration to and supportive of, external stakeholders.

Of course, the corporation cannot be privy to mindset change when it comes to CSR, or SCG as we will now call this concept. Externally engaged stakeholders, government, business organizations, Civil Society and the media must yield to this change as well. The expectations of kickbacks, various charity cheques and public relations media madness must now gradually transmute into public/private focus groups, business and NGO training collaboration, and more up to the minute, press release type media on the company’s processes, procedures, operations, tenders etc. It is time to make this concept practical, efficient, flowing, yet dynamic.

From our perspective, the myth behind CSR is debunked. Sustainable Corporate Governance is concrete, encompassing business continuity, pro-active, company wide development solutions and creations, where various models can then be exported to train other companies, organizations and governments needing support. Can corporate giving be integrated into the mix? Of course, but really, philanthropy comes naturally after the company has internally strengthened. That is the responsible choice.

Astrid F. Kowlessar
Triumph International

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