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Is your business taking CSR seriously?

Paul Raleigh finds businesses acting like good global citizens

Sustainability is a buzzword of the moment. Whether as business leaders or consumers, we cannot escape from being told to consider the long-term implications of our actions or spending decisions. When they are rational and focused, I welcome these arguments: exhausting scarce resources will reduce the opportunities available for future generations.

But what of the role of businesses – often unfairly typecast as faceless, profit-grabbing corporations who would do anything to sell more stuff today, no matter the consequences tomorrow? As Barack Obama recently told The Economist: “The business community (has) broader responsibilities to the system as a whole…(although) the  general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders.”

In reality businesses across the world are engaged in a whole host of environmentally and socially responsible activities according to Corporate social responsibility: beyond financials, the latest publication from our International Business Report (IBR). More than two-thirds of the 2,500 businesses we interviewed gave either time or money to a local cause over the last 12 months. Two in three improved waste management or energy efficiency. More than half gave away products or services to charity. The overwhelming majority are involved in CSR activity of one type or another.

That said, businesses have a responsibility to investors, shareholders and also indirectly to the people they employ to turn a profit. But increasingly business leaders see the tangible benefits in adopting more environmentally and socially sustainable practices: two thirds cite cost management as a key driver in their sector, up from just over half when we last surveyed this topic in 2011. Improving energy efficiency is a great example of a cost-saving action with wider environmental and potentially social  benefits.

However, a clear majority of businesses simply said they are operating more sustainably because it’s the ‘right thing to do’. This may seem a fairly nebulous concept in the world of business, but it highlights what is at the heart of any corporation: people. Our own CSR programme focuses on how we can get the skills of our people out into local communities, both for their own development and for the wider positive impact.

As with many ubiquitous concepts CSR means different things to different people. But for me, as a business leader, good CSR is so much more than writing a cheque. It means unlocking the potential for growth in our people and in our communities. It means developing and evolving, but not at the expense of the natural environment or society. It means growth that considers longer-term implications. It means acting as responsible global citizens.

Happily our research shows that the vast majority of mid-sized businesses are doing just that.

Paul Raleigh is global leader for strategic development and growth at Grant Thornton