In today’s post-crash, on-off recessionary, pre-bond apocalypse world, it’s all too easy to be cynical about the role and motives of business and government. This year’s European CSR awards in Brussels confirm how much of the business world is committed to performing their role as corporate citizens.
The crisis of confidence in business is being felt in all the major western economies, but particularly in those countries most affected by the 2007 crash, such as the US, where the ‘business cycle’ has particularly damaged confidence in both business and the state, and the European Union.
The Wall Street Journal‘s recent discussion on what exactly business can do about the ‘legitimacy gap’ perhaps reflects how corporations are more aware than ever just how far reputation is a major component of brand value.
But the 63 winners of the inaugural European Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Awards, held in Brussels last month, help demonstrate that business really can be the prime driver of sustainable, social progress.
Here, it was accepted that by promoting sustainable consumption and the considerate use of scarce resources, enterprises can add to the momentum for the development and assessment of sustainable start-up ideas creation through, for instance, an online community.
And by investing in eco-innovation and energy-efficient production, businesses can not only save money but also reduce their negative impact on the environment. Simples … and there’s not even a meerkat in sight.
Facing its own protracted economic problems, the European Union (EU) is keen to promote this ethical, innovative and responsible approach as a means of re-establishing trust in and the legitimacy of business as a core driver of recovery.
But inclusiveness is also important: the European Commission (EC) is not just looking for major corporations to enjoy the good times again, but also wants to see a thriving small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, too. These are big ambitions, indeed.
EC vice-president Antonio Tajani, commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, sees corporate responsibility as central to the path out of the mire we’re in.
Trust in business
He said: “A strategic approach to CSR is increasingly important to the competitiveness of SMEs and large companies. It encourages more social and environmental responsibility from the corporate sector at a time when the crisis has damaged consumer confidence and the levels of trust in business.”
These pan-European awards, funded by the EC and organised by Business in the Community and CSR Europe, seek to focus on products, services and initiatives that address environmental and social needs as a viable route towards renewed growth and job creation.
The organisers might not say it explicitly, but they are effectively promoting an alternative to the classical business model advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman, in which companies believe they have no other function or duty than to generate a return for shareholders – private profit, whatever the cost.
These awards are an acknowledgement that business as usual is simply not a viable option, a notion reinforced by the continuing fall-out from the 2007 crash – which classical economists failed to predict, and which many commentators believe still has some way to go.
Given this context, there is quite a lot for a simple awards process to achieve, whether it is to show how partnerships and innovation can help solve social and environmental problems, and how far these solutions engender greater legitimacy and economic benefit. They are trying to say that ‘giving something back’ isn’t just an act of altruism, but a way of improving the bottom line.
If these awards go anywhere towards aligning perceptions of self interest with that of wider society, then that would be a great achievement indeed.
The winning partnerships of business and non-business organisations were selected for national awards in two categories: small and medium enterprises, and larger companies.
The winners include:
Piraeus Bank, which ensured stable financial support and developed a donations campaign for UNICEF in its work to provide humanitarian assistance to children.
Italian homeopathic medicine company Guna, which worked with development NGO COOPI to help revitalise ancient medical traditions in Paraguay, while boosting employment in indigenous groups.
Danish biotech and agriculture company BioCover A/S, which used the negative attributes of various existing fertiliser products to cancel each other out, creating a sustainable organic fertiliser to be used in combination with conventional products – something that has never been achieved before.
CSR excellence through innovation: The European award scheme for CSR partnerships between enterprises and other stakeholders was launched in 2012. The awards are organised by the EC, Business in the Community and CSR Europe, which were selected to co-ordinate the organisation of the national CSR award schemes together with national award partners.
The national awards are held in advance of the European CSR Award Ceremony and are awarded to at least two different categories, small and medium-sized enterprises and large companies in partnership with at least one non-business stakeholder.
CSR and the EU: CSR underpins the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The strategy defines CSR as the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society. It seeks to create and exploit win-win situations for enterprises and for society at large.
Tthe EC published A renewed EU strategy 2011-14 for CSR in October 2011. By renewing efforts to promote CSR, the EC aims to create conditions favourable to sustainable growth, responsible business behaviour while, at the same time, generating durable jobs in the medium and long term.