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CSR - Who Are We Kidding?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept that has crept into the management lexicon. But what exactly does it mean? Google it and you will come up with a bewildering array of references including government guidelines, international standards, papers on how specific sectors could be doing more, seminars on how to maximise CSR, and extracts from annual reports of companies illustrating how their corporate values and practices are contributing ethical, social and environmental benefits.

Increasingly, CSR is trumpeted as making good business sense. Certainly it brings marketing advantage, with many companies now positioning themselves as dedicated practitioners of CSR, appealing to the conscience of both customers and employees alike. Examples include retailers selling ethically-produced or environmentally-sustainable goods, and coffee bars and supermarkets offering Fairtrade products.

But the CSR message is not always received in a positive way. Some argue that there is an irreconcilable tension between maximising profit and advancing the interests of society. Cynics contend that some companies embrace CSR programmes as a form of PR, rather than out of a genuine commitment to social welfare. Certainly, there are plenty of business people today (and even more celebrities) who seem to wear their CSR commitments as a badge of honour. This issue is close to home - within Wickland Westcott we debated whether to detail on this website our own commitment to aid in Africa. After much deliberation, we felt going public would help donations to our particular charity (and indeed it has) but there remains a slight discomfort in the business at the self-serving nature of public displays of charity, including our own.

So when we came across a business that genuinely combines CSR and real commercial enterprise, we wanted to find out more. Steve Jackson, CEO of Recycling Lives, spoke at a recent Wickland Westcott dinner and described a business that personifies the ethos and principles of CSR, whilst trading profitably and successfully expanding into new geographical areas and activities. Steve explained how this award-winning commercial recycler and social welfare charity provides a unique solution to the growing problem of worklessness, homelessness and welfare dependency. Recycling Lives started in 1999, based on an established family recycling and waste management business which has re-modelled itself to embody the principles of CSR, diverting 90% of waste from landfill by recycling, re-using and re-selling unwanted items. At the same time it provides work placements for ‘residents’, many of whom have histories of criminal convictions, substance abuse or poor educational achievement. They are offered support and mentoring, taught life and technical skills in their chosen field and offered training and education, jobs and career pathways as well as support in new business start-ups. This has made a real difference to the lives of many people and contributed to the cohesion of local communities.

In the UK at least, the zeitgeist has shifted against business over the last few years – some people now think companies exist only to line the pockets of shareholders or executives. Many businesses have responded by emphasising their CSR credentials, and some now promote their entire brand proposition as being about social welfare rather than profit. But unless a company is genuinely centred around these principles, like Recycling Lives, we feel their CSR commitments are best positioned as a secondary or tertiary activity. To do otherwise risks enflaming cynicism towards business, as people sniff-out the subterfuge. And anyway, commerce and the generation of profit is itself a creditable force for good, both in the purpose it gives to employee lives, and the wealth it generates for nations.

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