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CSR – Genuine Principle or Marketing Wheeze?
Is It About Real Philanthropy or Simply the Bottom Line?
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
Is CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) genuine principle or marketing wheeze?

The CBI in the UK defines CSR as “an acknowledgment by companies that they should be accountable not only for their financial performance, but for the impact of their activities on society and/or the environment.” However, acknowledging is one thing, but genuinely making an effort to make things better is entirely another. For instance, how many of us have acknowledged that the shed needs clearing out, then either done nothing at all or made a token gesture to keep the wife quiet?

There is no doubt that CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is an important part of the modern business. It’s good PR, and it can even improve profits. However, this raises the question – do companies adopt CSR out of genuine concern for the environment and the communities around them, or is it simply one more weapon in the marketing department’s arsenal?

Obviously, there are companies out there who really do see CSR as just that – a responsibility, not just a PR exercise. The Co-Operative Group, for instance, has long been recognised for its ethical policies and transparency, The Boots Group plc works closely with the Nottinghamshire Health Authority to promote health in their local community, and Cadbury’s, the chocolate maker, was established as a philanthropical venture.

Unfortunately, there are many companies whose idea of CSR is to simply have a pot of money available for anyone who passes their qualification process, and when it’s gone that’s it until the new financial year. These charitable donations are admirable, but more often than not it results in the biggest charities getting the lion’s share of the pot, while smaller charities get little or nothing, and find themselves scrabbling around for scraps wherever they can find them or simply being forced to shut down altogether. Worse still is that local communities get nothing.

When you look at this issue you see that there are hundreds of companies with CSR programmes. However, when you consider how many companies there are in the world, you can see that for every company that does get involved, there are literally hundreds of others which do absolutely nothing.

Many of these companies are protected to some extent by their low profiles, and operate below the radar. Larger corporations, however, because of their position, are forced to get involved for fear of public criticism. BP, for instance, was criticised for not spending enough money on preventing oil spills, resulting in it developing various CSR programmes. It makes you wonder how many of these companies would do nothing if they could get away with it.

For me, the biggest problem with CSR is that, while admirable, it is often misguided. HSBC, for instance, have an excellent initiative in their Global Environment Efficiency Programme (GEEP). This is dedicated to reducing the company’s carbon footprint, and involves many initiatives such as developing renewable energy sources and environmental protection. Their Future First programme is fantastic, and for many would represent what real CSR is all about. This programme operates in 43 countries worldwide and looks to educate and protect disadvantaged children. The story of Bafana, a young boy in South Africa who was left orphaned after his parents died is particularly heartwarming. The Future First programme meant that he was found, and given food, shelter, education and medical care to try to give him the best chances in life as possible.

Both GEEP and Future First are 5-year programmes, and are a shining example of what CSR should be. However, my complaint is this: GEEP has a budget of £45 million, while Future First has a budget of only $10 million. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the energy companies be focusing the majority of their money on the environment since their work most directly affects it? Shouldn’t HSBC focus more of their budget on communities and excellent programmes like Future First?

Perhaps there should be more co-ordination between major multinationals in their CSR ventures, with companies focusing more on the areas they are more closely involved in. For instance, if BP and HSBC were to combine their efforts, with BP focusing on climate control and HSBC focusing on communities, imagine how much progress could be made. Imagine if companies got together and agreed individual areas to focus their CSR programmes on. A CSR Alliance, if you will. It really would “share the wealth” so to speak, and would ensure that instead of focusing attention on one or two areas, there would be help for everyone. Wouldn’t that be great? Maybe then we could move a little closer to the great John Lennon’s wish for us all: “Imagine all the people sharing all the world...”

Just imagine...

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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.






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