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Bringing CSR to the Fore

David Saul, managing director of Business Environment, leading serviced office operator, examines the business benefits of making CSR central to strategy

Nowadays most businesses include a statement relating to corporate social responsibility (CSR) in their annual reports. How deep this runs is another matter.

There are those that still believe CSR is a waste of time and money, with intangible results and little return on investment. And as the difficult economic climate continues, the case for putting CSR on the back burner becomes an even easier one to win. A certain degree of ‘greenwashing’ may ensue.

But you don’t need to look far to see how CSR, when done properly, can have a beneficial impact on the bottom line. In April, Unilever published its second Sustainable Living Plan Progress report, which evaluates the success of its ten-year sustainability plan. Two years in and the report is an interesting read.

Firstly, the report is strikingly honest. Unilever admits that while it is making solid progress in two of its three goals, it still lags behind on the third – doubling sales, while reducing its environmental footprint by half.

Secondly, and probably more interestingly for businesses ‘umming and ahhing’ over the benefits of CSR, is the effect the campaign has had on sales for some of its brands. For example, one of Unilever’s fastest-growing brands, Lifebuoy soap, increased its handwashing educational programme and reached 71 million people in 16 countries in 2012 – five times as many in 2010 before the Sustainable Living Plan initiative launched.

Thirdly, I am impressed by the strong words used by spokespeople at Unilever. Paul Polman, CEO, is certainly not shy in giving his opinion on the importance of businesses giving back and willing to hit out at companies he thinks fall short. He leads by example.

Of course, not every company has the resources to drive change in the same way as Unilever. It is an expensive process – educating consumers, altering manufacturing plants, and ensuring employees are on board all mean money must be spent.

But it’s hard to ignore the benefits. Not only does a CSR plan that infuses all areas of your business improve your reputation and give you a cause to talk about in the press, but it can also boost your sales – and who doesn’t want this?

I am a big believer in making CSR central to business strategy. After all, a company, wherever it is based, has an impact on the wider community. And therefore has a responsibility to this community.

At Business Environment, we have put CSR at our core. Rather than looking for easy ways to boost our green credentials, we are evaluating all our processes to ensure CSR becomes part of our day-to-day operations.

Perhaps one of the most important steps in launching and maintaining a CSR initiative is gaining buy-in from employees. Research published in the Journal of Supply Chain Management last year showed that the more an employee believed a company is committed to a goal, the more the employee will respond to the goal. It also showed there is a direct correlation between CSR training and employee engagement.

Recognising this, we ensure our employees are continuously consulted and educated on the company’s values and goals.

Our Green Team – which identifies areas where we can become more environmentally friendly – is made up of people from across the business so that all voices are heard. Similarly, while we have three principle charities, all employees are also given three days paid leave each year to volunteer for a charity of their choice. We’ve found that by putting the power in our employees’ hands has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response.

Not only this, we communicate with our customers and encourage their participation too. For example, clients have the option to participate in our ‘binless’ office concept, which is part of our drive to become carbon neutral. We’ve discovered that by being proactive and open about our initiatives, customers have been impressed. We’ve even had the edge over competitors in new business situations.

With all the scandals of the past few years, the trend is towards greater transparency. CSR is therefore only going to become increasingly important to customers as they seek out companies that are not just ‘in it for themselves’. The benefits of CSR are there for the taking.

David Saul David Saul is Managing Director of Business Environment