My full email signature reminds me that I am a corporate social responsibility director. Don’t know what it means? Me neither. But Googling various definitions of the constituent words of my job title tends to sees me through to until 09.12am each morning. I’ll work it out, eventually.
This isn’t how it was meant to be. I wanted to present Match of the Day. Thank goodness that the university careers department put me on the straight and narrow. Apparently there was no vacancy for being Adam Ant, either.
I couldn’t hack working in international development. Twelve months in West Africa in the early 1990s soured my Live Aid-fuelled desire to work in foreign aid. There followed a traverse through an internship and on to a couple of jobs in human resources, before I stumbled into my current role in the early 2000s.
By 09.13am I’ve nearly figured out what I am supposed to be working on. This usually involves trying to convince everyone else in the business to do things they don’t really want to because “it’s the right thing to do”. Not all companies are naturally imbued with a moral compass. Historically, they have been asked to deliver products or services, ensure employment for people and make money; there’s been little pressure to do any of this in a specific way.
Conversations often go something like this: “Perhaps we should do our bit to minimise global warming by setting carbon reduction targets that are based on the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?” “Sounds expensive. Will we have to pay a consultant to calculate that? Will we meet three-year payback on capital investments? Will it give us any marketing advantage? Can we pass on the cost to the consumer somehow?”
“Or maybe we should begin to explore possible human rights, child labour or modern slavery risks in our supply chains?” “Hmm… sounds like we might need to add headcount, and there’s no budget until the new financial year.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking it all sounds a bit wishy-washy, but corporate responsibility and sustainability are increasingly serious issues to businesses, and the wider public, apparently. Research suggests that up to 60% of consumers would pay more for environmentally or socially responsible products. Interestingly, the proportion of people who actually pay more for these products is significantly lower than those who say they will. I know of a leading American company that bases their investments on 15% of their target market paying more for a product with a positive sustainability story. I’m also aware that the so-called “discount” retailers have been aggressively recruiting CRS teams in recent years. This isn’t just for affluent mums to get excited about when they put their Essential Waitrose kaffir lime leaves in the boot of their Range Rover – this is mass market.
The idealists in the industry (and there are many) operate under the illusion that businesses should adopt full-scale sustainable practices overnight. I think it’s a naive view of how things work. While there are a small number of organisations that have been able to adapt their business models or products relatively quickly, for the vast majority it is inconceivable.
Success is achieved less through big wins and enthusiastic approval, but via little nudges and passive acquiescence. “Did they say yes?” “Well, they didn’t say no.” For all the time I’ve worked in the industry, I can’t remember a success that was achieved because anyone ever wanted to operate more responsibly or to be more sustainable. The victories have been about managing risk, protecting or enhancing brand reputation, saving money, competitive advantage, a created fear of inaction or, simply, grinding people down. It’s nudges, pokes, prompts, subtleties – and more nudges.
The cold hard truth is that businesses will invariably want to explore any potential commercial benefit of more ethical operations, looking at opportunities to “sell” sustainability either by charging a slight premium (“renewable only” energy tariffs) or by outcompeting a rival (two bars of chocolate at the same price, but one is Fairtrade). But ultimately, it boils down to whether operating sustainably pays.
I’ve heard people say that companies don’t need to be doing that much to operate more sustainably, as long as they aren’t doing nothing. These people tend to be rewarded based on their organisation’s financial performance only. Their holidays and kids’ Christmas presents are dependent on them making money for their employer. You could argue that morally they should act, but so should consumers. People say they want more responsibly produced products, but when they get to the tills it’s price that is king.
But it’s OK. We don’t have to move too quickly. It’s not like any of the sustainability issues – a collapse in biodiversity, melting ice, flooding, extreme weather events, drought, modern slavery - are particularly urgent. Let’s see how they play out.
We’re on a journey in this industry. I’m not sure where we’re going. I do know it’ll take us ages to get there, but as long as nobody starts singing Summer Holiday I can probably cope. But, hey, it’s keeping me in a job, so I shouldn’t push too hard. Although I dread the day when climate change is fine, supply chains are all fair, nothing goes to landfill, workers are healthy and safe, pension funds are all responsibly invested and some companies pay a little too much tax. I mean, that sounds great … but what would I do all week?
Source: The Guardian