We simply expect companies to stop bribing overseas officials, to not use
children to stitch together footballs and to clean up their oil spills. But CSR
is at a crossroads. And, perhaps for the first time since it began its
ascendancy more than a quarter of a century ago, its foundations look a little
There’s little doubt that companies are getting better at transparency and
are being more forthcoming about CSR.
Research from communications agency BlackSun, for instance, will show in the
next month or two that most FTSE100 companies are already taking the enhanced
business review requirements into account – a year before they have to do so.
But does that mean that all’s well on the CSR front, then? Not at all.
It’s a step in the right direction but I get the sense that those and other
companies are only answering the easy CSR questions. Unfortunately, there are
only difficult ones to come.
Take Boots, for example – the high street store, that is, not the footwear
previously assembled in exploitative conditions. On its CSR website it says it
has an ‘enormously valuable role to play in promoting the health of our nation’,
and believes in treating customers ‘fairly’.
Yet the retailer has written to suppliers to extend its payment terms to 75
days from the end of an invoice and introduce a settlement charge of 2.5%. ‘Call
that CSR?’ thundered bloggers. And it’s hard not to agree when cash flow is the
number one killer of small businesses.
Then there’s tax. At the heart of Tesco’s libel action against The Guardian
is the notion that to be accused of excessive tax avoidance is to be socially
irresponsible. And given Tesco quotes at least one customer in its writ who
agrees, the man on the street may well think so too.
Meanwhile the green debate is set to move from the nebulous to the urgent
(for carbon-related cost reasons if not environmental damage reasons). It’s easy
to imagine a time when the only responsible course of action for many businesses
will be carbon neutrality. Anything less would be very un-CSR.
With these and other pressures 2008 might just be the year CSR gets properly
defined once and for all. It needs to be.
Damian Wild is editor in chief of Accountancy Age and
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