Tuesday, 8 February 2011

CSR - When a good idea looks like a mistake

How important is Corporate Social Responsibility to a business (CSR)? Many big businesses spend vast amounts on CSR policies, but is it really worth it? BP look to be the latest company to shoot themselves in the foot by coming up with a fantastic idea, and then scoring a massive own goal because they haven’t thought it through.

People across the UK are starting to get angry about the back of their Tankers – which read “This vehicle is CO2 neutral”.

The problem with CSR is that it is often used as propaganda rather than really being at the heart of business. The statement’s read like a pillow of fluff and puff, often linking in with PR activities or existing activities. There’s often no harm, and something positive to say, but it is often meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Look at First Groups’ CSR policy. Most of the document lists activities you’d expect them to do – pay their workers fairly, abide by the laws of the land, not to lie or cheat, to offer a reliable service and the like. Get on to the environment and they say:

We are committed to: preventing pollution and reducing the overall impact of our operations on the environment.

Now what does that mean? Not much. It could mean they are working tirelessly to eradicate carbon emissions. It could mean they’ll try not to knock over any barrels of oil in the yard so it doesn’t get washed in to the local water. It could also be anything else inbetween.

Compare that to Tesco who have put hard figures in their environmental CSR policy, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050 and with a range of other targets for 2020. They may be too long term to bring to book, but they are demonstrable.

So what’s the issue with BP? On the face of it, there’s no major issue. The objective is for BP to be carbon neutral and they are making some significant steps. According to their website:

Over the last seven years we have achieved real sustainable reductions of 7.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MteCO2e). In 2008 we reported 0.4MteCO2e of reductions, including for example, expansion of the use of 'smart' well automation to reduce venting and improved well completion procedures to reduce flaring at our Wamsutter natural gas operations in the US, which resulted in emissions being 48,000teCO2e lower than they would otherwise have been.

The problem is the communication and the messaging of what this is and what it means.

What does it mean to be carbon Neutral? BP has a definition which basically covers its back. Its aim is to reduce green house gas emissions where possible and offset a significant proportion of the rest. Offsetting in itself is controversial in itself and there is debate about how effective it really is, but let us leave that to one side.

Now BP isn’t Carbon Neutral and a tanker certainly isn’t CO2 neutral, so how can they make this claim? I’m imagining they’ve set themselves a target of offsetting all tanker journeys and paid to plant the trees. Some bright spark has come up with the idea of promoting this fact by painting it on to the tankers.

Now shift forward away from the company to the man or woman in the street. When you say BP what do you think of? Oil spills, petrol stations may be even a North Sea oil rig. Does this seem carbon neutral activity? The problem is the statement is probably right in terms of running the vehicle but it seems such a lame attempt to cover up environmental issues.

I’ve dealt with environmental issues for a major company and it is amazingly complex. There’s a lot of propaganda and not much fact.

But when a large industrial tanker is staring you in the face and proclaiming to be carbon neutral, it is like a heavily obese person telling you they’re on a diet because they now have a sugar free soft drink with their burgers.

It all chimes with the Cadbury CSR disaster. Buy lots of chocolate and get a free skipping rope. Deliver tonnes of fossil fuels and plant a few trees.

So how do you use CSR effectively? When I worked at Orange, they claimed only to use fair trade coffee. The drinks machine I used definitely didn’t contain fair trade coffee. Even if your failed objectives don’t leak out to the press, its not great for staff morale to see a promise broken.

It must be part of a brand and be at the heart of your operations. It’s great to say “this company values its workers” but what does that mean? It has to have deliverable and preferably quantifiable objectives. The days of warm words and fluff are gone so the greenwash won’t wash. If you support a charity, why was it chosen, how much are you donating and how else are you helping?

Do you really care about the local community? What have you done to help it and have you volunteered your skills or people to help?

Finally, is what you are saying true? Even if it is, what does it say to the man on the street who doesn’t read your environmental manifesto, your press releases or your internal memo?

CSR comes from the heart, needs to be genuine and needs to be reported tactfully.

Top image from © BP p.l.c
Other images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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