CSR & Sustainability Thought Leadership

The article is a narrative of an interview with Drs.Daan Elffers, done on the surveys EMG conducted with Corporate Leaders across the World on Corporate Social Responsibiliy & Sustainability.

Through the work EMG does with their clients they see first-hand how a properly implemented CSR strategy makes companies strengthen their market position and reputation, improves efficiency, effectiveness and helps them work towards a healthier environment for everyone. EMG believes, companies that integrate CSR at the core of their business are better positioned to engage employees, stimulate innovation, and improve employee retention – all of which increases their bottom line.

As Giuseppe van der Helm, President of the European Sustainable Investment Forum (EUROSIF) put it in the very first CSR leadership interview we did, “Large multi-national corporations may have enormous power, but it’s that same power that can make a dramatic positive difference in the world.” We couldn’t agree more: corporations today have such an opportunity in so many ways. And it all starts with a positive mindset and a clear mission.

We know that success stories about these companies that are leading in CSR, the people that are driving them, and stories from other parties that work directly with issues that relate to CSR serve as a great force of inspiration to motivate people. Once you’re inspired, you can do anything. We need to get the news out there that things are being done, and that there are great things that we can learn from or get ideas from.

Celebrating diversity, our objective has been to speak not only with leaders in business, but also politicians, NGOs, and individual thought leaders – not just in Europe, but worldwide. The key challenges we’re facing today are global, so the solutions have to be global too. It’s been an extremely exciting project so far and we’ve received overwhelming support from people all over the world who are contributing their time and energy to participate. The response to the initiative has been phenomenal, which is also a great motivating factor for our team.

In sharing good news about what’s happening in CSR around the world as well as the issues that business has the opportunity to improve, we hope to inspire business to implement or take further their own CSR projects with more energy, and see things from a new or different perspective.

Q. Which country, organization or corporation has invested most in CSR and how does it manifest in the real world?

There’s no single answer to that. What we are seeing is that companies and organizations we work with or have spoken with for the interviews are all addressing CSR in their own unique ways. While they all share the viewpoint that CSR is important and are taking real steps to integrate it in the business, it’s fascinating to see how different approaches have worked well for different organizations in varying contexts.

When we spoke with Fujitsu’s global head of Sustainability Alison Rowe, she underlined the relevance of the Japanese culture in her organisation with regard to taking a long-term view, which has resulted in their having a CSR plan in place extending till 2100! Markus Terho, her counterpart at the Finnish Nokia, referred to the Finnish cultural values as drivers and Alberto Andreu from Spanish Telefónica has explained how transparency has been driving their sustainability agenda.

As we can see, even companies in similar industries with completely contrasting drivers and approaches to the same problem can each perform very well in terms of CSR overall.

Q. How do people view sustainability and who is at the forefront within this aspect?

Awareness of sustainability and CSR is growing. Sustainability is increasingly acknowledged as vital for our health and well-being, but also as crucial from a business perspective – speaking in terms of threat as well as opportunity. Setting aside variations in terminology – CSR, social responsibility, sustainability and so on – most companies and governments have it on their agenda and it’s definitely here to stay. In fact most of the people we’ve interviewed agree it’s simply the way forward.
For some companies, sustainability really is as a business driver, such as for Cradle to Cradle® companies or many other companies that are working towards a closed loop or circular economy business model. For others, it’s initially about meeting legislation – and then there’s everything in between. We see companies face a variety of challenges, from their supply chain to the threatening scarcity of materials, pressure from stakeholders or upcoming change in legislation.

Every company is different, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for successful CSR or sustainability implementation. The complexity of CSR requires that it always be linked to a company’s unique attributes that differentiate them from their competitors, and from that develop a unique strategy and set of goals – establishing a benchmark for decision making.

The companies that are therefore at the forefront on sustainability, in our view, are those that take a holistic view of CSR, putting it at the core of their business, rather than simply as an add-on. They are not afraid to ask tough questions and keep things simple; looking at how everything they do affects the big picture. They take a close look at what the company is doing and take the ethical responsibility and action to change those things that aren’t socially or environmentally responsible – regardless of current regulation.

As a company that helps businesses structure and successfully implements CSR and sustainability strategies, we often encounter CEOs or Heads of CSR who have sustainability goals and targets in place, but they don’t immediately see how to get it off the ground or how to take it to a next level in practical terms. Our job is to help these organizations manage sustainability, get aligned with their vision and, where necessary, help them out as they progress.

In our experience, it’s the companies that have the executive leadership team responsible for meeting the company’s sustainability goals that reach their targets faster and become front runners.

Q. What recommendation can you give to an organization with regard to CSR & Sustainability?

Really integrate CSR into the DNA of the business. You need to understand why you are doing it and ensure all your employees and stakeholders know what the CSR ambitions of the company are, why they add value, and how they can contribute. As Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method, pointed out it in his interview with us, “Getting people to follow your lead and adopt your innovations is the most important – and often the trickiest – step in the sustainability process.”

Your business will have so much more success when people understand your vision, are inspired by it, and know how to participate. The way to achieve this is through clear strategy, meaningful engagement and effective communication and reporting.

The ‘why’ should be easy. It’s been long proven that CSR has countless benefits to businesses ranging from reputational benefits and employee engagement, to management of numerous business risks, innovation and competitive advantages. As the people we’ve interviewed have emphasized over and over again, CSR and profit do go hand in hand – in the short term, and even more so in the long term.

Building a CSR platform should always start from your own reputation and strengths, and not from a defensive position. A successful CSR strategy should be about making a forward step, not about merely meeting legislation.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. Engage your constituents in the journey and be open and honest about your achievements as you progress. When people can understand how you’re genuinely trying to make progress, people will be far more realistic about expectations and far more forgiving if you make some mistakes on the way. Do good, be fair and realize that you are part of something bigger. Be a seeker, not a follower. Don’t wait until stakeholders come to you to make change, or until legislation tells you to do things differently.

Be the driver of the CSR agenda that works for your organization, where you ask yourself questions how your organization can do good, rather than how to be ‘less bad’.