At what point does a social responsibility initiative become material? In my view, it’s when it can be measured.
If real performance on social issues is to become the norm for mainstream corporations, we need to fill out our success stories with clear measures of success.
Companies have some great stories about advancing human rights. I was at a sustainability conference in Chicago recently and heard impressive stories from two companies (making chocolate and home products respectively) who had engaged strongly with their suppliers in Africa. Their teams had visited the territory and started a dialogue with the communities around their supply chains to understand the challenges they faced. They heard from the next generation of farmers with no incentive to follow their parents and unscrupulous middle-men cutting their profits, and saw uncontrolled mining activities encroaching on to prime farming land. By tackling these issues together they strengthened the capacity of their suppliers to sustain their communities, advance their rights, and become more productive.
The companies in turn gained from long-term security of supply, staff development and building their corporate reputation.
Success stories like these are compelling to a conference audience because people can relate to a simple human story with challenges and victories. But is it enough to influence mainstream senior management teams in less progressive companies?
I was struck by the contrast between these narrative accounts and the presentations from those focusing on the environmental side. These speakers had more numbers than a maths class flowing from their presentations. This many millions of tonnes of carbon were saved by moving from air freight to shipping; that many more items were shipped by redesigning packaging. You got the sense that in these companies the senior teams had appreciated the financial benefits of these projects since waste reduction translated into cash savings. The social initiatives, however, without the compelling numbers behind them, started to look like the more risky, pioneering moves of the few.
The three pillars of economic, environmental and social performance are all vital to a sustainable business. Environmental managers are mastering the measurement tools to submit business cases, mobilise resources and deliver measured benefits. But what about those who are trying to champion social benefits? Where they are part of a receptive culture they get support from the leaders of their companies who often act because “it’s the right thing to do”. But if progress on social issues is to be achieved in mainstream corporations, success stories need to be made tangible, and that can only happen by applying clear measures of achievement.
Paul McNeillis is director of CSR at Achilles Information