Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Does CSR really work?

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has been around for many years. In fact, since the 50's when the phrase was first used by academics and business leaders to identify and articulate the impact of global businesses on society. (I imagine the phrase was near strangled by the booms and busts of the 80's and 90's when the environment was not at the forefront of a businesses strategy).

There's been as many critics of CSR as there have advocates. That's to say, it's never been a government initiative, nor has it been obligatory. It's voluntary and, as such, has swayed in both directions since its conception.

But what does CSR mean for businesses? Can it really affect the bottom line? Can it embed itself sufficiently within a business/brand and become a competitive advantage?

Some years ago, I attended a talk by the founder of the clothing label Howies. As a business, Howies pride themselves on their ethics and it's become the thread by which the company has grown and flourished (indeed they were recently purchased by Timberland). Every aspect of the brand is as sustainable as can be. Every product is produced with as little environmental impact as humanly possible. Every catalogue printed on recycled stock and printed with vegetable inks. And, every employee as earthly as the brand they represent.

All of this is, collectively, what makes Howies appealing to its customers. So much so that they trade almost entirely on their principles alone. Subtle marketing, no gimmicks and no expensive ad campaigns. CSR, for Howies, has become a real competitive advantage and certainly reaches to their bottom line.

What Howies does isn't new though. (You just have to look at the great work Anita Roddick and team did with The Bodyshop). But it works for them. They trusted their own beliefs and built a brand which echoes those beliefs, and the beliefs of their customers.

So (and this isn't a final summary as such but something to ponder) CSR, and indeed corporate/brand values, need to be the foundations by which a business is formed. To add them like you would condiments to a finished plate of food will only affect the credibility and authenticity of the approach. CSR needs to reside within the DNA of an organisation and should be a personality trait that every employee is proud of.

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