Corporate Responsibility: Australian bank beats Brits on responsibility

John Plummer

An Australian bank has beaten the best of British in Business in the Community's index of the most socially responsible companies.

Westpac, which was taking part in the survey for the first time, leapt ahead of 2004 winner National Grid Transco, which was relegated to second.

Noel Purcell, Westpac general manager of stakeholder communications, said British companies needed to embrace corporate social responsibility instead of regarding it as something to bolt on to their work.

"Something is going wrong because in the UK only 144 companies participated, and that's a small percentage of the corporate world," he said. "It's not winning over the majority of hearts and minds."

Purcell attributed Westpac's success to its down-to-earth approach to CSR. "It's built into the fabric of the company," he said. "It's about doing the right thing for staff, customers, the wider community and stakeholders."

Many companies, he said, were frightened about taking the first step and were afraid it would cost them money. "Short-termism is the curse of the modern business world, and most people can't break out of it," he said.

BiTC invited more than 500 companies to contribute to the Companies that Count index, which it describes as the benchmark of responsible business practice. FTSE 100, FTSE 250 and Dow Jones sector leaders, including Westpac, were asked along with other big UK businesses.

Judging guidelines changed this year to give greater reward to organisations that could prove they measure the environmental and social impact of their work.

With the scores of 51 of the top 100 increasing this year, BiTC claimed the survey demonstrated that more companies were acting responsibly.

"Companies have a better understanding of the issues they are trying to address," said Patrick Mallon, director for benchmarking and reporting at BiTC. "They also have more robust management in place."

Businesses were marked on strategy, integration, management practice and performance and impact.

MONITOR

Guy Thompson, director, Green Alliance

The index provides an invaluable benchmark for those in the game of keeping companies on their toes. The green groups need such tools to interpret company reports and scrutinise the performance of individual businesses and sectors.

The discipline of disclosure is a helpful process in itself, forcing companies to take a hard look at themselves and improve from within. The ranking also provides an incentive for companies to progress, particularly within their own sectors.

Where the index falls short is in failing to provide an understanding of how companies are positioning themselves on public policy.

It is possible for companies to score highly in this index but simultaneously take deeply regressive positions with government behind closed doors.

We need a code of practice and benchmarking to shed some light on this murky issue.

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