Responsibility isn’t just for the good times

Corporate social responsibility will not survive the economic downturn. That
was the stark ­ and provocative ­ argument put forward at the Oxford Union this

Yes, the counter-argument was made ­ that behaving sustainably and ethically
is as necessary in the bad times as it is in the good. But it is the view that
the downturn will cause companies to kick CSR into the long grass that will
resonate for ­ and worry ­ many.

It’s inevitable that many companies will water down their commitments as they
seek to cut costs as revenues fall.

This flip side is of course the negative PR that may result, though in many
cases this can be easily dealt with. With soaring energy prices, green
commitments can be maintained for cost reasons rather than CSR reasons. But will
other aspects survive?

To be a member of the FTSE4GOOD Index, for instance, companies must do more
than simply work towards environmental sustainability. They should develop
positive relationships with stakeholders, uphold and support universal human
rights, ensure good supply chain labour standards and counter bribery.

There are already signs those other criteria are suffering. More than one in
three of the international business leaders surveyed last month by Ernst &
Young reported a worsening of corrupt business practices. At home, meanwhile,
Boots is one of 14 companies to have come under fire for imposing a ‘settlement
fee’ on smaller suppliers.

This week’s ICAEW-sponsored debate took place as Accountancy Age went to
press ­ but it won’t be victory on the night that matters. If companies are
serious about CSR, it’s essential it’s not treated like a pick ‘n’ mix menu.

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