Corporate social responsibility becomes strategic

For sustainability, cast the information net wide

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While these dependencies obviously complicate the task of responsible business management, leaders of sustainable organisations are learning to understand and act on them. Mastering this complexity requires new levels of insight, new sources of information and new forms of collaboration. As a result, leaders in CSR are developing coalitions of business partners, NGOs and others to begin to address information gaps in areas ranging from labour to water standards. They're identifying leading practices and techniques to inform and educate stakeholders, such as customers and employees, more broadly.

Overall, most organisations know they need to engage their stakeholders in some way. However, proactive engagement with business partners and NGOs, at 55 and 44 per cent respectively, is relatively low, given the benefits that can be achieved from collaboration.

Creating leading practices and standards

Active industry participation now is one way to help ensure that the new practices and codes that emerge will make it easier, not more onerous, to operate a sustainable business. Moreover, industry coalitions are an excellent way to access and share a wider body of sustainability information. These groups can also help organisations make better use of their information by suggesting how, for example, the information can be deployed to change operations and innovate, as well as communicate progress to stakeholders.

For example, water is a topical issue, particularly in countries and regions facing scarcity of this vital resource. To address this need, 12 companies, including Coca-Cola, Diageo, Nestlé, Anheuser-Busch InBev and PepsiCo, have formed the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable to collect and share data and leading practices relating to water conservation and resource protection. Together, they established a common framework to exchange information on water reduction, reuse and stewardship, as well as drought preparedness.

Benchmarks and leading practices are important guides to use in setting objectives

The challenge lies in aligning these objectives across constituencies with diverse concerns and goals of their own. These stakeholders include employees, consumers, business partners, investors and NGOs, as well as regulatory bodies and governmental institutions.

Customers: Partners in sustainability

Most organisations understand expectations for transparency with regard to CSR initiatives. Over half of the business leaders we surveyed consider the open sharing of information a high priority. However, until recently, organisations have tended to share information reactively - in response to stakeholder demands. Those that expect to gain business advantage from CSR are developing new ways to inform and educate their stakeholders, whether they are customers, employees or partners. Social media tools such as Twitter, a CEO blog or forums represent perfect opportunities for communicating CSR objectives and results.

Transparency and involving the customer in decisions when it comes to a company's day to day operations can raise the sustainability agenda. For example, customer satisfaction may increase with conveniences like one-day delivery, but fully loaded transport reduces energy costs. Point-of-sale information on delivery options could provide them with a welcome opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint: "If you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent on the delivery of this television, click here and your package will arrive next week via hybrid carrier."

Results of our survey indicate that organisations placing a higher priority on transparency and those that have attained some maturity find it easier to execute. Clearly, once organisations start efforts to increase transparency, they gain needed experience and greater confidence in the value of sharing information both within their organisation and with their stakeholders.

Engineered creatively, these collaborations can do more than inform customers; instead of simply sharing information, organisations should encourage customers to participate in genuine discussions where all concerned can reap the rewards of collective wisdom, and bring about positive change.

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