Amongst the deluge of business acronyms, accounts, health and safety, human resources and the like, one three letter abbreviation rarely sees the light of day – CSR. As a result, many SME think that Corporate Social Responsibility is only for large companies wishing to create positive PR, and that even then it sits in the pink and fluffy area of the “ToDo” list.
The social innovator, Rachel Botsman suggests that the currency of the new economy is Trust. We live in a world where anyone can start a company and put up a website. People are increasingly aware of this, and want to understand more how companies behave (take the recent public pressure on Starbucks to pay corporation tax). Our CSR is the perfect means to develop this trust, because it is more about actions than words; lots of companies suggest they are ethical, few actually do anything to prove it.
And the truth is that SMEs are better placed to undertake, and benefit from CSR – here’s why:
● Sir Richard Branson has defined business as “trying to make a real difference to other people’s lives”. If you agree with this view, then CSR should be something that goes hand in hand with our commercial offering, rather than being some random adjunct to it. SMEs tend to have more of this client-focus, with a more genuine interaction.
● In addition to this, the author Simon Sinek proposes that a company needs to have a “Reason Why”. SMEs are more likely to be in touch with the reason they exist – and it’s normally more than just about making money.
● I would suggest that small businesses tend to have a higher proportion of staff actively engaged with company direction, and therefore are better placed to undertake CSR type work.
● CSR further enhances this employee engagement. Even If a job is mundane, unpleasant and poorly paid, CSR can radically enhance the self-worth of your workforce, lowering staff turnover and actively boosting productivity.
● SMEs are much more likely to have a local focus, reputation and presence. This has two effects:
○ The effort spent on CSR directly impacts the target geography. The company develops a better reputation and even if sales are global, at the very least you’ll attract the best workforce.
○ A local company has to work less hard at appearing genuine. If a large supermarket were to undertake CSR the public might ask “why?”. For a local company, this credibility hurdle is much lower.
● It’s a complete misconception that CSR needs to be expensive. Yes, it does involve staff time, but often your team may also be prepared to give up some of their own time if they are really engaged in the project. The resources may be free or incredibly cheap and this kind of engagement is actually a lot more newsworthy than giving cash away.
So how could you develop a functioning CSR policy?
Think big and act small. Set a goal for where you want to be in terms of sustainability and ethics (think big), then develop practical ways in which you can make changes (act small).
If you’re stuck for ideas, then ask your workforce – you can be sure they will be more engaged with their own ideas than yours.
Your CSR can be both internal and external. As a few examples of internal campaigns, consider heating/cooling controls to cut carbon emissions, waste reduction, generation of energy from renewables, ethical sourcing of equipment and behavioural changes to make you more responsible as a company. Externally, how about painting the local scout hut, doing a litter sweep, or running a training day at your local school or college?
What do we do?
In my own company, whilst we have a central office, many of our team work from remote locations via the cloud. This can seem like a barrier, but already we’ve enacted one of our core CSR policies – reducing emissions, by reducing travel to and from work. And tracking mileage is easy. (As an aside, the flexibility that home-working provides also attracts extremely high quality employees who might normally be too expensive for a small company.)
Recycling both in the office and at home has become second nature to all our employees. Once you have a critical mass of people prepared to question when something is thrown into general waste, the culture soon changes.
We’ve decided that everyone should be a shareholder (although voting rights are restricted to to allow rapid decision making). It’s amazing how much more commitment and advocacy a workforce will give when they know it’s partially their company – just ask John Lewis.
Whilst we want to save the planet, it may be too late for some areas of the world, and hence we decided to support the Climate Justice Fund (run by TEARFund) with a percentage of our profits. This sits very well with some of our bigger clients like the National Trust and RSPB who need to be very picky about who works for them.
I remember being involved with building a new hospital in Swindon many years ago. It was at the time when everyone was moaning about health and safety. The approach the Contractor took was to embrace the regulations from the start and build the policy into everything – they looked at all their construction techniques and systems and reworked them to suit. The net effect was that the build was quicker, cheaper (and safer!) than it would otherwise have been. So my initial question about CSR is really rather irrelevant. If we put it on a list of priorities, it will always be a burden and often get bypassed. Rather, we should build it into everything we do – because that is who we are.
Is an Ex-Army Major and Chartered Engineer Carl Benfield formed renewable energy company Prescient Power in 2009. Prescient Power is now a UK-wide, multi-million pound business working with household names to harness the benefits of renewable energy which, in turn, have a positive impact on the bottom line of these organisations. With strong opinions about corporate social responsibility and the part it plays in success, Carl champions flexible working arrangements, employee shareholding, ethics and sustainability as top priorities within his business. Carl believes that sustainability offers a springboard to success for all UK businesses and he is happy to share his firm views and constructively challenge individuals, organisations and Government at any level.