Spotting GreenWash

As published in FM World

We are all wary of false claims for products.  This is true everywhere but it is especially galling in the environmental field where doing it right or simply offering GreenWash can mean the difference between more or less damage to our incredible planet.

There are two types of GreenWash:  blatant lies and subtle half truths.  The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines Greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”   And it’s getting worse: the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) says that the number of complaints relating to environmental or green claims, has more than quadrupled in the past year.

In the waste disposal field there is any number of examples of waste management companies making false claims to properly handle waste.  I’ve uncovered firms handling hazardous waste with no licences to do so, a firm claiming to shred confidential documents that didn’t even have a shredder.  A few years ago there was an infamous case of a firm claiming to incinerate clinical waste when actually it was storing it in 40 ft containers.  The stench became unbearable and the Environment Agency had to send in specially protected officers to clear the containers!

The disinformation can be much more subtle as well – sometimes a logo of a green organisation is placed on a label or on a website.  Sometimes it’s a nice sounding generic statement such as “We’re a green hotel because you can elect not to have your sheets washed” or “We’re the greenest transport company because we route our vehicles the most efficient way possible” or “We’re the best waste company because we recycle a large % of waste”

How do you combat that?  You use the FM managers traditional armoury: Diligence and Scepticism.

Ask questions.  Where a service is very cheap (as the clinical waste service was) ask the obvious – how do you do it?  More importantly visit the site, check the documents and consult the appropriate authority.  Where a grand claim is made, delve a bit deeper.  How does the company incentivise green behaviour?  How much has it invested in green technology. What specifically are you going to do for me?

Get specific:  Does the hotel use renewable power? Has it invested its own money in energy efficiency?  Has the transport company invested in efficient trucks, are the drivers trained in fuel efficient driving, are they rewarded for economy?  How does the waste company measure the recycling %?  What will actually happen to the waste you have?   More importantly do they reuse anything? Reuse is much better for the environment in a most cases than recycling.

So the golden rule for spotting greenwash is challenge, ask questions and if you’re not sure ask a friend..

Are big companies going CSR lite?

As published on Guardian Social Enterprise Blog

Last week I was asked to speak about corporate social responsibility at a business conference in theMidlands. The invite came at a good time as I’ve been wanting to investigate the watering down of CSR which seems to have quietly continued since the global recession. Is it down to over-stretched resources or a deliberate change in direction from the top? So instead of launching into my usual presentation I decided to experiment and asked 150 delegates who were senior managers from a range of blue chip companies “What makes a good company?”

The answers were compelling. Of course someone suggested “profits” but financial measures were swamped by values like “integrity”, “work in the community”, “customer service”, “openness”, “helping charities” and “honesty”.

As someone who believes business can contribute very positively to society I found this encouraging. There was also warm support for organisations like Green-Works who train and mentor young people that are struggling to get a job.

But when the formal talks were over several people told me their company could not invest in an ethical supply chain because they are under enormous pressure to reduce costs. Many of these same firms have environmental policies and donate to charities, but the possibility of using their huge purchasing power to address environmental or social concerns was not on the agenda. This seems counter-intuitive when just a small difference to the cost of a supply chain can immensely improve a company’s social impact. Businesses have a choice. They can financially support suppliers that are at best neutral, and at worst actively damaging to communities, or pay a bit extra to purchase from social enterprises, fair trade businesses and others tackling community problems as well as providing good services.

In light of this I was disappointed by the comments made by Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd at Voice 11. There he refused to entertain the idea that environmental and social reporting should be integrated by law into company reporting. How short-sighted when it is clear reporting obligations are a very persuasive way of encouraging change without prescribing how to do it.  Top executives like Karen Brady certainly think this is an effective way of promoting the campaign to get more women on company boards and I’m convinced that this is a constructive way of getting CSR issues considered more seriously at a senior level.

If real progress is to be made in realising the Government’s Big Society idea everyone will have to play their part; companies included. Such a simple thing as an obligation to report will transform corporate perceptions. Big businesses will do what all good companies do when faced with new challenges – incorporate these factors into the supply chain and make the solution an integral part of the business. Staff will be encouraged to bring forward new ideas and companies will compete to improve their relative performance.

Corporations will only improve their impact on society when CSR values are properly integrated into everyday business activity as opposed to being bolted on as a nice to have. Anything less is CSR lite and shouldn’t get the credit real social responsibility deserves.

Small businesses and social enterprises are the life blood of the communityDon’t crowd out SME’s

Small businesses and social enterprises are the life blood of the communityDon’t crowd out SME’s. by Colin Crooks

The government’s ambition to innovate in public services and to create 2 million jobs in the private sector over the next 3-4 years implies a great opportunity for SME’s to grow.  Looking deeper though I am sceptical that this rhetoric will deliver for small business – rather it looks like the large corporations will get most of the opportunities and drive their margin by ruthless sub-contracting of small business.

The reabsorbing of Quangos into their host departments, and the intense focus on large scale procurement as demonstrated loudly by Philip Green, suggest that opportunities to serve smaller government departments will evaporate and contracts will become ever larger.  Set against that the government has recognised the central role that SME’s could take in the Big Society.  Small businesses and social enterprises are the life blood of the community and can, if they remain healthy, do even more; so please don’t crowd us out in the drive for efficiency.

Understanding End of Life Management

As published by FM World

There are many factors to consider when purchasing. Juggling these conflicting criteria can be a real challenge.  Clearly cost is a major factor along with quality, compatibility, and increasingly the environmental credentials of the manufacturer. In recent years the disposal of the old equipment has been included.

Very rarely though have I seen much attention given to the end of life management of the new kit being purchased.  I find this very short-sighted as the purchase of today soon becomes the disposal concern of tomorrow.  The WEEE directive, which covers waste electrical and electronic goods, shows the way forward. It follows the long established waste hierarchy and sets tough standards for Reusing, Recycling and Recovery of redundant electrical products.

The Waste Hierarchy is a league table of how best to deal with waste.  Not creating it at all is obviously best so reduction is top.  Where a product is procured the best way to dispose of it environmentally and socially is to Reuse it.  Reuse is significantly better for the environment than recycling.  Keeping a product intact and extending its life with a simple repair will save more resources, use less energy and help more people than recycling ever can.  Reuse includes remanufacturing where a product is reengineered.  This requires very low energy inputs and keeps a lot of the original product intact.

3rd in the league is Recycling.  It makes good use of the materials in the product and prevents the material being lost in landfill.  It involves using energy to take the materials back to their pre-manufactured state and to reform them into a new product.

Recovery is not re-upholstery!  Recovery is producing energy by burning.  Typically it realises less than 20% of the energy that was actually required to make the product but as a last report it is better than landfill.

On a recent visit to Green-Works, Environment Minister Lord Henley was clear that he considered “Reuse to be the premier solution” and Reuse has been prominently included in the London Mayors draft waste strategy.   The regulators have set the standard – who will step forward to meet it?

Companies that aspire to being in the Premier League and to lead on the environment should really examine what they require when specifying new products and when disposing of end of life waste.  Are they being the best they can be or are they just following the pack?

The onus, as always, is on the FM to achieve the highest possible standard.



Transformative nature of Reuse

Social Firms Conference Report

Green-Works’ CEO Colin Crooks started the For What it’s Worth seminar on recycling by taking off his wedding ring. He held up the five grammes of white gold and said that its production had required “33 tonnes of ore to be extracted from the ground which was then soaked in cyanide to release the gold.  Just a few years ago cyanide soaked sludge from a Romanian gold mine flooded into theDanube causing an environmental disaster”

Gold is not alone in being intensely polluting and inefficient. Manufactured products take more than ten times their own mass to produce on average. Colin’s message was clear: “we should lock in the value of the product. Re-use and simple re-manufacturing are vastly more effective than recycling.”

In a significant step towards conservation recycling has become part of everyday behaviour in much of the world. Yet recycling has never been the most ecologically sound way of dealing with waste. There is a growing argument for moving up the EU’s waste hierarchy onto re-use.

Re-use creates six times less carbon emissions than recycling. Even more interestingly for social entrepreneurs, re-use operations employ 24 people for every one it takes to man an industrial recycling plant.

In 10 years Green-Works has trained and employed more than 800 disadvantaged young people in its furniture re-use business. Jobs involve everything from removing unwanted furniture from local authorities and corporate companies, to re-manufacturing redundant goods into desirable new products, not to mention customer services, transport, admin and marketing.

Others are grasping the prospects offered by re-use. Greenwich Borough Council recently launched a pilot project recruiting people to re-use white goods alongside its waste management team. Unwanted fridges and other valuable utilities are recovered, repaired, cleaned and delivered to community projects that need them.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s administration has granted the London Community Resource Network (LCRN) £8million to build a London Reuse Network with the aim of enabling Londoners to re-use anything.

There are problems amongst all this opportunity. Local councils have budgets for recycling, but not for re-use. Green audits in both councils and private companies reward recycling while ignoring re-use. More than one local authority representative at For What it’s Worth said that far from being incentivised to support re-use, they’re actively prevented from doing so by the bureaucratic architecture of local government.

Re-use programmes are also more difficult and expensive than recycling, which largely explains why big private contractors typically shred everything and recycle what they can. Re-use requires more careful management as unwanted materials must be looked after and either matched up with new owners or turned into valuable new products. Yet the effort seems worthwhile, given that an office desk made of chipboard takes more energy than steel to produce and most end up in landfill.

Colin illustrated the potentially transformative nature of re-use with a story from his days on a computer rebuilding project in 1980s’ Brixton. He met two young Jamaican men at a New Deal interview. When offered a free word processing course one replied “so you want us to wear high heels do you?” In his eyes typing was for girls, so they both agreed to help Colin’s team fix broken computers instead. In four weeks they learned to fix a computer and gained a qualification. Describing the scene Colin said “they’ve been told, for most of their lives, they’re useless and they’ve just fixed a computer which other people can’t work out under exam conditions. It’s just the most incredible lift in confidence.”

At the time Colin’s job was to make this computer project commercially viable and he got the whole team together to discuss increasing sales. One of the New Deal recruits suggested putting signs on each computer advertising the quality of the new technology, smart software and great prices. Everyone agreed this was a brilliant idea. The next day this same young man and his friend walked back into Colin’s office and asked to go on that word processing course. Colin says “you train people in re-use and they start to see there’s a need for skills they couldn’t appreciate before.”

In wrapping up the seminar Social Firms UK’s Sara McGinley asked the assembled local authorities and social entrepreneurs what’s needed to escalate the re-use movement. Several people recognised the business case is tight as it is more expensive than recycling. However there was agreement that the social value is inordinately higher and this needs to be recognised in contracts.

After 20 years of campaigns recycling is now highly practiced in the UKand Green-Works’ experience suggests re-use has the potential to radically scale up. With higher costs, yet added possibilities to transform lives, social entrepreneurs are hoping to turn political support into real momentum. Anyone interested in launching a re-use venture in London should contact the LCRN for access to funding and joint tendering opportunities.


Business and the Big Society

Published in the OFAS Newsletter (Office Furniture Advisory Service)

When, a few weeks ago, David Cameron gave a positive response to a question in Parliament about putting deposits on bottled drinks he sparked a tremendous debate.  Overwhelmingly, the public responded favourably and passionately.   They picked up the idea and it rapidly moved on from just recycling bottles to refilling them like we used to do. The industry response via the British Retail Consortium was by contrast sour and negative.  It in turn drew a lot of irate responses from a public that seems to be increasingly cynical about business.

It is a similar story with the Governments agenda for the Big Society – the idea that people, charities, social enterprises and commercial businesses can work together to make life better.  There is a huge debate on this in the civil society movement (charities, community organisations and parts of the public sector) but in business the response is muted and unenthusiastic. This is despite the fact that business has a huge potential role to play in this change and a tremendous amount to gain from it.

This is the classic cycle of these debates:  A new idea comes up, is ignored and then resisted by business, gets implemented anyway and business adapts and then miraculously creates a benefit from the change.

The furniture industry seems to be no different to business generally.  Apart from some honourable exceptions it is slow to engage in new environmental and social initiatives and is always playing catch up when it realises that the trend is real.

How will this tardiness be perceived by a government that has set out its stall to be the “Greenest government ever” and wants to create, through the Big Society, “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power …to the man and woman on the street”?  One answer is that it will legislate. Another is that it will find other methods of “persuasion”

There is of course a better answer.  The industry could acknowledge the direction of travel and get ahead of the debate.  So what is the direction of travel?

From where I’m looking the trend to deeper and broader environmental performance is now a permanent feature of business.  Another permanent feature is a much more engaged and connected society wanting a louder voice about how business operates.

What does deeper and broader environmental performance look like?  It means that operating a good, clean factory is no longer enough.  Every business needs to know its supply chain in detail – right back to SME component manufacturers.  Remember how Sony had 130 million PlayStations impounded in 2001?  That was all because the cables (supplied by a small company inChina) contained a small but unacceptable level of cadmium.   It’s not just the supply chain though – businesses need to be responsible for how their consumers use the product (such as how much electricity it consumes) and then how they dispose of it.  In short, the manufacturer is now deemed to be responsible for their products’ birth, life and ……death.

Couple this increased life cycle liability (at least reputationally) to the fact that enthusiastic volunteers are using the internet to track literally every step of a product’s life, and it becomes very clear that businesses cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand.  We’ve all read the stories of sweat shop labour that bedevils the fashion industry and a lot of you will have seen the debacle in April when Defra was caught on camera smashing up perfectly good office furniture.  The fact that they said it was being recycled was not good enough for the paper that exposed it, or for its readers.  Witness the bottle deposit debate. People know that reuse is the better environmental and socially beneficial solution and they want to see it happening.

Reuse is not only better for the environment but is also better for society.  Reusing furniture can really help if it is redistributed to people in need. To achieve higher levels of reuse will require a lot of people to be trained in logistics, repairs, remanufacture, marketing and sales.

Redistribution and training are where the Environmental and Big Society agendas meet.

So the trends are clear – firstly society demands higher and higher standards: in the supply chain, in the factory and at the end of first life.  Secondly, it demands much more visibility of what companies are doing and how they operate.

How should the furniture industry get ahead of these trends and create competitive advantage?  The industry is under siege from low cost imports, most of which would not meet any sensible standard for longevity or reusability and which might not stand up very well to detailed supply chain scrutiny either.

Most companies resist new standards but some see huge advantages in raising the regulatory bar.  When DuPont realised that instead of losing some $500m of turnover they could increase market share in a world where CFCs were banned, they became zealots for tougher legislation.

Reputable members of the industry are already producing good quality, well designed and long lasting products using ethically sourced wood but they are missing a golden opportunity to be in the vanguard of the changes that are coming.

They should positively engage in the Big Society – work with charities and social enterprises which could train people to give their products a second life in the community.  This second life can bring real benefits to thousands of people and would raise the profile and respect for the industry.   Just imagine.  An industry taking full responsibility for its end-of- first-life products, helping to train people to reuse them and benefiting thousands of people in the process.   Imagine then the lobbying power in government, in procurement departments and in board rooms.

That’s my vision – high quality, ethically produced furniture that is actively redistributed within the community to everyone’s benefit and for a greener world. The furniture industry can and should collectively and individually get on the front foot in these debates. In theory they are well placed to be more assertive.

Persuasive Environmental Strategy

Highest Pub

Published in FM World

I’m just back from Portugal where I had a great time – thank you.  As is my want I took loads of photos over there and I’m really pleased with how they came out.  In some I’m pleased with the composition in others how I’ve caught the light.  But when I show them to the family and to friends hardly anyone stops at the landscapes or the castles at dawn. No. They stop at the family shots on the beach.  “What were you doing?” they ask or “You’re wearing that shirt again!” they say.

Well, so it is with being more persuasive with your environmental strategy.  Not many people care too much about the facts of the case.   The fact that this bulb is more efficient than that one or that you plan to increase recycling from x% to y% is not especially interesting.  What they care about is people (and sometimes animals!)

So to be more persuasive you need to ask how this strategy affects people – real people.  If you ask that question you’ll get some very interesting answers.

Many environmental purchases have a really positive human side – not just in terms of reducing the environmental risk to people but really positive, life-changing impacts.  For instance, you can buy energy from communities that actually own wind farms.  The money they raise directly goes to improving their area.

The same applies to waste.  For some items, old furniture or computers or even food waste, you can find contractors who visibly train disadvantaged people to handle them and who pass them on to others who can really benefit.  There are social enterprises which compost food waste and then use the compost on local estate gardens and train local people.  There are computer and furniture removal charities that repair and clean anything that can be reused.  Lots of people both here and in developing countries can benefit from the repaired items.   It is human scale recycling which your staff can relate to.

An environmental programme with people in need at its core will not simply run better it will engage your staff.  With staff engaged in your programme you’ll find word spreads fast and people take a more active part in it.

So when you’re focusing on your environmental strategy don’t forget to put people in the foreground.  You will be much more persuasive.

Social Future Of Commercial Waste

Highest Pub

As published in               Fresh Business Thinking

Saving money and helping society is an unlikely combination, but if you take the new waste regulations seriously you could find yourself doing just that. It’s not often businesses get the chance comply with regulations whilst reducing costs and improving CSR, so the policy is definitely worth a look.

To give you an idea of the bigger picture, in less than 15 years theUK’s amount of recycled municipal waste has increased from four to 36 per cent. That’s 8 million tonnes of stuff that used to go to landfill now being recycled every year.

This is a tremendous achievement made possible by us all doing our bit at home with a plethora of recycling bins. However, due to a quirk in the government definition of ‘waste’ this drive away from landfill didn’t touch the world of business. TheUKgovernment has never brought in targets on commercial waste recycling – not yet anyway. When you realise that for every one tonne of household waste, six tonnes of commercial waste are produced, you see the madness.

This is all about to change. In December 2009 the government finally agreed to adopt the same definition of municipal waste as the rest of Europe. From now on any waste that is like municipal waste will be included in the government’s targets.

What does this mean?

The government is no longer going to pretend that the food we eat at work is different to the food we consume at home. Once finished with, the paper we use in the office should be treated in the same way as the newspapers we consume on a Sunday. The same goes for cans, cartons, tins, bottles, packaging and anything else we use at work. It will all be targeted as recyclable.

That simple change means businesses are going to have to halve the amount of waste they send to landfill to hit the new goals.  And it doesn’t stop there; targets will increase year on year.

Additionally there will be new pressures on business to ‘prepare for reuse’ as the EU has made changes to other rules on waste whilst upping recycling targets. Reusing saves a great deal more CO2 than recycling and ‘prepare for reuse’ is a common sense effort to ensure some products are reused as originally designed, rather than broken up for recycling. This will affect things of substance like furniture and electrical items and will present a new challenge to businesses unused to looking beyond recycling.

Furthermore by 2020 50 per cent of all glass, metals, paper and wood will need to be separated for either ‘preparing for reuse’ or recycling.

With landfill rubbish costs rising, recycling and re-using makes clear financial sense and using less energy significantly reduces a business’ carbon footprint. There’s also a less obvious, but no less important way of improving your CSR effort by engaging and motivating staff to reduce landfill, boost re-cycling and, best of all, re-use.

What should businesses do?

Together these changes are set to put new pressure on commercial waste. Here are five things that you can do to meet the new targets, make a difference to your bottom line and improve your CSR:

  • Start looking at the business through the ‘waste prism’

I once did a waste audit for a hospital and identified that they were using a huge amount of very small (100ml) glass bottles every day. When I asked why, we found that for years the mother and baby unit had been buying expensive small bottles of distilled water, despite the fact that the hospital bought distilled water in bulk for pennies. This practice was changed overnight and saved the hospital around £50,000 in the first year alone. Looking at your waste will tell you all sorts of things about the way your business operates at ground level.

  • When you look at your waste, think of it as representing a lost asset

Think also of the wasted time it represents. You probably bought the product or material in the first place, paying people to handle and move it before sweeping it up and binning it. Whatever your waste bill is, trying multiplying it by 10 and then you might be getting closer to what it actually costs your business. If the waste is hazardous try 20 or even 30 times.

  • Ask yourself, do you even need that process?

Dow Chemicals asked why they were paying to dispose of 6,000 tonnes of caustic waste that formed in their scrubbers as they made chlorinated organic compounds. By changing the process they eliminated the lot and saved themselves over $2m in the first year.

  • Encourage and motivate staff by getting them involved

In my view Big Society starts at home and in the workplace. To make the biggest impact on your waste you need to get your staff involved. If they’re not already you’ll no doubt find a lot of employees who’ll readily take part. People are really worried about the environment and want to do their bit. They can identify areas you’d never thought of and will galvanise others too.

  • Fuse ‘prepare for reuse’ with staff involvement

Immediately you’ll find that the old desk in the corner is going to a staff room in a school, or the newly replaced printer that still works is off to the local scout group.

Attracting the big fish and creating a community asset

As published on the Guardian “social enterprise” website

Looking back over the ten years since I started Green-Works I’ve had a chance to reflect both on what we’ve achieved and what’s still left to do. In the beginning we saw that office furniture was being discarded by large commercial and government organisations on an enormous scale. Not only was it being discarded but most of it was being dumped in landfill. As well as being a terrible waste of resources, it was also as a lost opportunity to help other smaller organisations who couldn’t afford new furniture.

Adopting a Robin Hood mentality we decided to take advantage of this shortfall. We clean, repair and even re-manufacture unwanted furniture from big businesses so it can be reused. The refreshed pieces are sold to charities at cut prices. The profits are used to fund training for disadvantaged people in theUKand deliver much needed furniture to communities in developing countries.

A decade on and the wasted resource argument is broadly understood and large organisations are now routinely specifying some sort of recycling of their redundant furniture. However the community asset argument is still yet to be won. Useful, good quality, furniture is routinely broken up for scrap.  This means that  communities in theUKand across the developing world being denied the opportunity to improve their working and living conditions with better furniture. Moreover, the tremendous opportunities to train people in the very wide variety of skills that reuse demands are lost.

For us the key to making a real difference has been getting the large corporations on board and retaining them as satisfied customers. Attracting blue chips to social enterprise isn’t always easy but it can be done if you take the time to really understand them.

Firstly it’s critical to approach large organisations at scale. Businesses and government departments want to keep their supply chain simple. They want one organisation to run a whole service. In our case that means that we have to take all the furniture – good, bad or indifferent – within tough  timescales. This means removing hundreds of workstations at a weekend or clearing whole buildings within a couple of weeks. You must be willing and able to take on the whole contract.  We think that means working with partners to increase capacity for large projects.

These partners could come from both the social enterprise and commercial sectors. Most notably for Green-Works, our first large warehouse was set up by First Fruit who have run a very effective depot in eastLondonever since. Looking back, however, I realise that even with partners we were often undercapitalised. We’ve always made up for that short fall with sheer energy and commitment but it’s been a big gap to fill.

By proving we could work to scale we’ve moved the market. That’s partly due to another trait of large organisations; they are extremely adept at adopting new approaches once they’re shown to work. This is especially the case when the activity will show the business to be meeting best practice. So once we’d demonstrated (with a huge contract with HSBC) that we could reuse and recycle industrial amounts of furniture, other companies turned to Green-Works for the service.

With a big name happy client on board, you suddenly become a less risky, more attractive option. With a clear mission statement, CSR and environmental benefits, social enterprises can put themselves in a good position to tick multiple boxes for large corporations. It’s likely you will be awarded points for your values but good communication is vital otherwise you run the risk of simply seeming expensive. In this economy that’s the last thing you want people to associate with your organisation; even big companies with hefty budgets want to know they’re receiving good value for money.

It is hard work dealing with large organisations but all in all I think it was worth the enormous effort that was required to get ourselves up to the scale that corporate clients require.   It has enabled us to really help lots of people and organisations.  With such large contracts we have been able to help more than 15,000 small organisations with low cost furniture and perhaps even more rewarding we have given training and employment opportunities to more than 800 marginalised people.  None of that could have been achieved unless we’d operated at scale.


Corporate Social Responsibility; Solid partners or Fair Weather friends?

Fair-weather Friends? by Colin Crooks

Corporate Social Responsibility is not a ‘nice to have’ which should become a sacrificial lamb in a cost cutting exercise.  Companies have invested heavily in their reputation as caring and considerate employers and responsible members of society for very good reasons.  Their employees are interested, and take positive encouragement from working for enlightened and highly regarded organisations. Cutting CSR programmes now when times are tough demonstrates only one thing – that such businesses are not the self-proclaimed stalwarts of the community and committed long term partners portrayed in their annual reports.  They are in fact fair-weather friends.

CSR has become a familiar term in our business vocabulary. It acknowledges the greater responsibility that comes with the massively increased power wielded by corporate organisations in the global, privatised economy.  As Governments move out of more and more aspects of service delivery, so the requirement for private business to engage fully in the public agenda increases.  As companies ‘off-shore’ their services to lower cost economies, so paradoxically they are increasingly called to account in the home country to make a bigger contribution locally.

Until now, companies have been happy to make that contribution and take the plaudits that go with it.  It has become the norm for corporate organisations to represent themselves as caring employers, responsible environmental citizens and generous supporters of local and/or less fortunate communities. We’ve even started believing it – with health and wellbeing programmes and matched funding for employee fundraising, with office recycling schemes, and high profile donations to community based projects.  Community days with teams of volunteers from banks, law firms and insurance companies getting their hands dirty clearing out canals and painting walls provide team building opportunities, give staff a feel good factor and provide friendly copy for the employee newsletter, the local paper, and the annual report.

The proud employees who work for such organisations will undoubtedly take a very dim view of any moves to cut back on such programmes just when they are needed most.  They are being bombarded by the media messages about corporate greed and mismanagement, and they are seeking reassurance that the organisation for which they work is not like the others, that it is worth putting in the extra hours, handling the stress, taking on the extra workload that is involved in steering the ship through the storm.  Their passion for the business, and for its integrity and its values, is what will get them and their companies through.  Organisational values are meaningless as statements at the front of the employee handbook, or on a Power point slide in the induction programme. They only come alive as they are experienced or witnessed.

Any review of CSR commitments should not focus on cost saving but on their effectiveness!  The global recession is prompting us all to rethink our business models, reassess our risks, reduce our costs, and protect our bottom lines.  CSR activity will inevitably come under scrutiny during this process. It is important to step back from that cost line on the P&L and consider what CSR really represents.

Corporate Social Responsibility must be embedded in a company culture more deeply not less.  It needs to be fully integrated into the business operation.  That is the meaning of integrity – it is as one.   CSR creates opportunities to reduce costs and increase impact.

How so? Well…. a truly embedded CSR policy means actively seeking services from social enterprises and charities.  While there will always be excellent charities that simply need donations there are many which actively raise revenue through trading.

By using functional budgets to buy essential goods and services from social enterprises or trading charities, a company will contribute much more than a limited CSR budget ever could. Every pound spent helps a charitable organisation to do more good work.  More important is the wider impact of that spend.  Social enterprises like Green-Works employ considerable numbers of marginalised people; people who have struggled to get work due to illness, homelessness or imprisonment.  By creating work with a commercial value for such people, social enterprises can restore their self-worth and confidence.  Feeling valued and being confident are the two biggest assets we can give to people anywhere.

The multiplier effect works just as powerfully in the social and environmental economy as it does in the financial economy. Every pound invested in CSR activities has multiple benefits and the impact can be out of all proportion to the cost.  Witness the people who after many years of unemployment have found meaningful employment, witness the people in Africa overjoyed at the donation of redundant furniture from a bank, witness the fun and comradeship engendered through an employee sponsored walk to raise funds for something they all care about.

With a fully embedded sense of corporate and social responsibility, not only would companies purchase from social enterprises and charities but they would encourage employees to volunteer in them; sharing their expertise or their physical labour, and opening their eyes on another world. At its most fundamental level, volunteers gain an insight into the world of the socially disadvantaged, the disabled, or the unemployed which enables them to better appreciate their own positions.  More importantly, they have an opportunity to share their skills and experience in a meaningful way, and actually see the benefits that those skills can bring.

During tough times, it is difficult to give employees the ‘feel good factor’ at work that significantly impacts on creativity, job satisfaction and productivity.  Proactively purchasing goods and services from social enterprises and supporting employees to engage in CSR activities provides this opportunity.

Knowing how much their company has donated to charity will make employees feel good but it will not make them set their alarm an hour earlier, or go the extra mile to win a new account, even if there are nice pictures of the smiling beneficiaries on the intranet or in the newsletter.  CSR is about making the company’s engagement come alive for its employees, as much as it is about benefiting the recipient community, the environment, or charity.

Corporate social responsibility is a set of values –  values that are shared by all employees and all customers.  Values are constant and not fickle.  A CSR policy should be about how to live these values, maintain that integrity, in good times and bad.  CSR should demonstrate that we are true citizens and not fair-weather friends.

Colin Crooks is CEO of Green-works, a Queen’s Award winning environmental social enterprise which diverts waste office furniture from landfill through re-sale, remanufacturing and recycling.

Published in CorpComms Autumn 2009