|Thursday, 06 August 2009 12:26|
Zoltan Marfy looks at the ways in which corporate responsibility has evolved to cope with recessionary times:
It seems an awfully long time ago now, but back in the golden, halcyon days of early 2007, as we neared the end of the long credit boom, there was such a thing as Corporate Social Responsibility. Long before anyone was talking about the credit crunch and profit protection, CSR, along with Web 2.0, was the buzzword on everyone’s lips.
Now – as we contemplate plummeting sales, soaring debts and ever-lengthening dole queues – the previous level of CSR might seem out of kilter. Companies were spending fortunes on minimising their environmental impact, ensuring their suppliers cross the world enjoyed humane working conditions, and on promoting equal opportunities throughout their workforces. At one point ‘We are a responsible business’ was the mantra of all. Companies set up CSR departments, and produced detailed CSR reports.
Of course, that hasn’t completely gone away by any means, but many companies have gone very quiet on SR. Maybe that’s understandable. If you’ve just been made redundant the last thing you want to hear is that our employer has just donated a six figure sum to a cats’ home, or that it has spent what it would cost to employ you for the next 100 years on solar panels for the head office.
But there is a suspicion that some companies are using the recession as a way to dump programmes that are no longer fashionable. BP has been criticised for closing its Alternative Energy HQ, a move that prompted the resignation of the division’s Chief Executive, Vivienne Cox. In much the same way Shell has pulled out of the £2 billion project to put turbines in the Thames estuary.
It is not just in the UK that social responsibility is taking a bit more of a back seat. A survey commissioned by Business for Social Responsibility in America has found that a third of firms are expecting to cut their CSR budgets this year. Ford is reducing its spending by 40% and Citicorp has slashed its budget by $27 million to $63 million.
Sir Stuart Rose launched the five-year, £100 million eco-plan in January 2007, saying: “M&S will change beyond recognition the way it operates over the next five years.”
It had around 100 initiatives and would involve the company becoming carbon neutral, sending no waste to landfill, extending sustainable sourcing, setting new standards in ethical trading, and helping customers and employees live a healthier lifestyle.
Updating on progress in June 2009, the halfway point, M&S revealed it had completed 39 of its 100 points. Sir Stuart commented: “We continue to make strong progress on Plan A. The economic downturn has made our targets more challenging but we don’t think this is a reason to compromise, or an excuse to not deliver on our commitments.”
Look a little more closely, however, and you can see how the company is evolving its CSR work. A comparison of the two press releases, one at the launch of Plan A and the other at the recent update, reveal how the language of CSR is changing.
Back in January 2007 the dominant words were “food”, “use”, “packaging”, “carbon” and “customers”. While M&S was always quite clear that CSR was about benefiting its customers, it focused its efforts clearly on the provision, content and packaging of its food products, and on reducing its carbon emissions. “Fairtrade”, “plastic” and “recycled” are also prominent, again reflecting the popular themes of the day. In a 100-point plan much was covered but the word cloud highlights the most important topics that emerged back then.
Fast forward to the June 2009 update and the language has changed significantly. The talk is now of “business”, “suppliers”, “waste” and “million”. Only “customers” survives from 2007. In a recession, M&S is retaining its commitment to CSR, but is focusing on the aspects of its programme that help it to cut costs. The numbers matter more than ever before.
We would argue that this is a sensible approach to take. CSR is, after all, about building sustainable businesses. Companies that use fewer resources, that have satisfied employees and suppliers, that are integrated into their communities, and that operate ethically are more likely to survive and prosper than those that know no law other than the soulless pursuit of money. M&S knows this. It’s in CSR for the long un, but it is cutting its cloth to suit the times.
Zoltan Marfy is creative director at Merchant