Apr 102008

In times of economic uncertainty, if not complete meltdown, people rightly ask about the fate of corporate responsibility and the priority given to environmental concerns. Not least because the rapid growth of strategic CSR in recent years has taken place against a generally stable financial backdrop. Some argue that recession, or the threat of recession, means CSR is the first ‘luxury’ to go as companies tighten belts and focus on the short-term bottom line. But this is to misunderstand what corporate responsibility is about, and why companies engage in it.Certainly, for the company that has yet to embark on a deeply embedded CSR strategy, the fate of any plans hang in the balance as the threat of hard times looms. For the firm that views CSR as a ‘nice to have’, or as little more than philanthropy, it is unlikely to prosper until the economic downturn passes. But CSR is not about philanthropy, and many companies have now embedded it to such an extent that it is simply a part of the way in which they do business. It forms the core DNA of their modus operandi, and in that sense is much harder to undo. Not to mention the cost savings that properly executed CSR brings, through more prudent use of natural resources, a highly motivated workforce, reputational benefits, a bank of goodwill with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders, and improved investor relations. Done well, corporate responsibility is a profit centre, not a cost.Companies well down the path of corporate responsibility excellence are unlikely to dismantle their CSR strategies, because they can’t. And in communications terms, as competition for sales and market share becomes even harder in a recession, ethics form a key part of the corporate tool box.Unilever, long a leader in sustainability, is not about to abandon its long established and praised approach to CSR, its new partnership on certified sustainable tea with Rainforest Alliance, or its commitments on climate change and water stewardship. Timberland is not going to drop its progressive ethical stance, and nor will Gap and Nike risk a return to the times when they faced boycotts and crippling litigation over Asian sweatshop factories. For these companies, getting the ethical agenda right is absolutely core to their survival. Some might even argue it is as critical as a healthy financial climate.Corporate responsibility saves money, builds reputation, and provides whole new angles for communication, across all the marketing disciplines. It builds and cements a bond of trust between a brand and its customers. In times of economic hardship, that trust has a greater value than ever.

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