x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Manar Al Hinai: CSR works when done properly and not as a publicity stunt

CSR is much more than cleaning a beach for a day. When done properly, it makes a real difference.

When someone is drowning, they will hold on to anything to stay alive. In the business world, it is not much different.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a tool often used by many drowning companies, or ones facing difficulties, to polish their image and appeal to clients.

Take the American department store JC Penny that recently released a sustainability report. The struggling company, which is closing more than 25 stores, and reported a net loss of US$500 million in its last published report, probably felt it was a good idea to highlight its goodwill to distract the public from its financial struggles.

An acquaintance’s case provides another example. He visited my office a few weeks back and told me that his organisation’s new managing director wants to start a CSR programme.

An advocate of philanthropy, I was thrilled to hear that, but my excitement waned after he told me that his director wants to donate an amount to a charity organisation to create some publicity buzz about his “responsible leadership”. This is what he meant by starting a CSR programme.

This is but one example of the problem with many CSR programmes. It is ironic for us to see companies worldwide that provide poor working conditions, or poor customer service use CSR to show their social commitments. In a way they are contradicting themselves, by taking with one hand and giving with the other.

While it is good to see that many organisations worldwide use CSR, many limit their efforts to solely polishing their image by either donating a one-off sum or a publicity stunt, such as cleaning a beach for a day.

CSR is much more than that. It is about being socially responsible in every business aspect, to incorporate the philosophy to employees’ work task, and to create a genuine commitment to improve society’s welfare.

Customers are not easily fooled by many companies’ CSR tricks. The Reputation Institute, a world-leading management consultancy, reports that the 100 global companies, which comprise its RepTrek index, spend millions of dollars per year on their CSR activities, but only 6 per cent of customers believe that by doing so they are being good corporate citizens.

And this is where many companies, including reputable ones get it wrong. They choose to support external organisations such as charities, or marathons by donating a certain amount, instead of dedicating time and effort to think how they, as an organisation, can create a positive change. What they tend to overlook, is that CSR starts from within– from within an organisation’s own society.

That is not say that some organisations have not done so already. In fact, many are pioneers in their fields.

An example is Starbucks’ cafe community store, which was initiated to train community members in the neighbourhood they serve in, and how instead of working with corporate farms to produce the company’s coffee, Starbucks works directly with farmers around the world and even helps them to develop responsible production methods.

Another leading example is The Body Shop, the British cosmetics and beauty chain, which packages its products using renewable and recycled materials, and established production factories in impoverished areas, to improve the livelihood of local people.

Another impressive initiative is the Community Trade Program, which creates sustainable trading partnerships with communities in need around the world.

Companies and programmes such as these are what CSR is all about. They are making a positive change – going beyond the ordinary CSR activities. To make a real change, they are redesigning their business models, remaking their packaging, rethinking ways of reaching their customers, and reshaping their strategies to revolve around CSR. They are creating value and being socially responsible to everyone from their employees to their community members.

By doing good, they are obviously doing well, and this is not a new concept.

But what is new is that more and more brands are following the footsteps of great ones such as in the examples above to integrate their social efforts with their brand strategies and operations, and this is when great things happen, not only for the business, but also for everyone else.

Manar Al Hinai is award-winning writer and fashion designer based in Abu Dhabi. Follow her on Twitter: @manar_alhinai