CSR, Covid and Climate Change – a chance to Build Back Better
CSR – or Corporate Social Responsibility – has its origins in the philanthropy practised by wealthy industrialists who funded the construction of public buildings not only for the benefit of society but as a way of leaving their mark as a person of influence and importance. Viewed by today’s standards, these acts of civic generosity may look like a smokescreen to cover dubious practices elsewhere but at the time there was nothing incongruous about Lord Leverhulme building model living conditions for British workers at Port Sunlight while using forced labour in the Belgian Congo. In the 20th century, with the birth of the labour rights movement and later the environmental movement, CSR began to be understood as limiting the negative impacts of a business on the environment and society, with the emphasis on compliance with legislation and the avoidance of reputational damage. More recently, we have seen a trend towards what is now called “values-led” business, where an organisation aspires to have a positive impact on society and adopts a corporate philosophy that puts doing good at the heart of strategy. Such businesses see the role as creating not just economic value, but social value.
What is social value?
So what is social value? You might have heard it described as the triple bottom line. Everybody is familiar with the financial bottom line; the triple bottom line is also concerned with gains and losses for the environment and society, with the aim that all three should be “in the black”. This concept was enshrined in UK public procurement policy in 2015, when the Public Service Social Value Act decreed that tenders should be evaluated not only on price, but on the value that would be created for the local economy, the community and the environment. Its principles align with the concept of sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland report to the UN in 1987 which now forms the foundation of any credible CSR strategy.
And what does all this have to do with Covid?
The pandemic is not purely a health emergency, it has fundamentally disrupted every aspect of society and these impacts are obvious when viewed through the lens of sustainable development. Economically we have seen businesses in some sectors forced to close and, despite some radical interventions by the government, some categories of workers falling through the safety net. Other businesses have pivoted to working from home, but that has reduced footfall in urban centres to create local economic challenges. Some found themselves isolated at home in unsafe situations, and those with school-age children were forced to simultaneously work and home-school. There are inequalities, too, in the way different sectors of society are affected by the virus, with increased mortality rates for the elderly and those in certain ethnic and socio-economic groups. The environmental impact of the virus is mixed, with lockdown having led to less traffic congestion, cleaner air and a fresh appreciation of the value of green spaces at the same time as a dramatic increase in the single-use disposables we’d worked so hard to reduce.
And meanwhile, the impacts of climate change continue to make themselves felt, with polar ice caps melting at an unprecedented rate, record emissions of methane from so-called zombie fires beneath the arctic tundra and extended periods of drought fuelling terrifying wildfires across the United States. Here in the UK we saw record-breaking August temperatures and extreme rain events serious enough to cause damage to infrastructure. This is no longer a distant threat – we are already experiencing the effects of climate breakdown. And while the threat might not be as immediate as COVID-19, it is at least as serious. The vast weight of scientific consensus tells us to expect increased incidents of extreme weather leading to disruption to food and water supplies on a global scale as well as numerous other risk factors. We need to act now, at scale and pace, to both decarbonise the economy and build resilience against the impacts of climate change.
What has Covid-19 shown us?
Fortunately, Covid-19 has shown us just how swiftly and decisively we can act in the face of an existential threat. And many people now recognise that this enforced pause in business as usual gives us the opportunity to take stock of working practices that have perhaps not evolved at the same pace as technology. Offices only exist because information used to be in hard copy and equipment used to be large, expensive and heavy; now information is in the cloud and we have portable technology that enables us to access it wherever there’s wifi. That’s not to say that working from home is a panacea; there are many who lack access to safe and comfortable workspace, fast broadband, the right equipment. Research by BEIS into poor indoor heating suggests that chronic under-heating may make working from home over winter much more challenging for many. And, of course, many people feel isolated without the community and collaboration of as shared workspace.
So how about we reframe the way we think about work, and focus on empowering everyone to work in the place that best suits the task at hand?
After all, work is a thing you do, not a place you go. In a digital economy, we can drastically reduce carbon emissions by avoiding unnecessary travel; visiting shared workspaces only when necessary to establish new relationships, onboard new staff, gain inspiration for new projects and other activities that require physical presence or proximity. But to make this digital transition equitable, we also need to rethink the role of urban spaces, prioritise health and wellbeing and aim to leave nobody behind.
So, what changes can we make?
While it’s tempting to grasp for the familiarity of the status quo, the pandemic has created an unprecedented opportunity to make the changes in response to climate change that we might previously have dismissed as too radical. In fact, action on climate change can bring forward valuable co-benefits, some of which we briefly enjoyed during lockdown. We can have enjoy air quality, quieter streets and a renewed appreciation of nature. We can also benefit from better water quality, improved work-life balance and buildings that are better adapted to the changing climate. And we can create employment and improve social outcomes by investing in jobs and skills for a low-carbon economy.
There’s an old adage about never letting a crisis go to waste. Things are undeniably tough now, and there’s every chance they’ll get worse before they get better. But since business as usual is no longer an option, we get to choose the future we want. We can lock in the cost savings – and emissions reductions – from avoided travel and use them to help everybody access safe and connected workspace at or close to home. We can reframe the office as a place to meet and collaborate, not to work alone at a desk. And we can re-evaluate the core values of our business and the impact it has on the environment and society. Research shows that the upcoming generation of consumers increasingly favours companies that contribute social value – businesses that recognise and embrace this will be better placed to not only survive post-COVID, but to thrive.
Tracey Rawling-Church is Chair of Connect Reading, Principal Consultant at Accra Advisory and Co-chair of Reading Climate Change Partnership.
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