NEWS IN FOCUS: Baby steps on the road to corporate responsibility - Companies are increasingly keen to give the impression they are socially aware, but many still have a lot to learn, reports Dave Woodward

DAVE WOODWARD

So big business has finally grown a conscience. Or it hasn't at all, depending on which bit of research you believe.

The Government is very keen on the sector swallowing its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report 2002, which suggests that "great strides

have been made by UK businesses towards more socially and environmentally acceptable behaviour. And looking at the recent proliferation of reports on corporate social responsibility, you might be inclined to believe the Government.

A report by Echo Research, which describes itself as a reputation audit company, agrees. "Over the past year, we have seen far greater and genuine commitment to CSR. There is a lot more awareness, a lot more interest and a lot more happening,

says chief executive Sandra Macleod.

There is every reason for the sector to want this to be true. If businesses are really becoming more aware of the benefits of putting something back into the community, hopefully more funding and partnership opportunities will open up for charities. And there is no shortage of case studies to back up the positive story.

Computer giant IBM is going to great lengths to establish itself as a company that gives as well as receives. Its work in the community has been highly commended over the past two years, especially since donating £5 million to establish a fund to help those affected by the 11 September attacks.

Powergen is aiming for similar social credibility. It has set up a number of partnerships with UK charities to offer help with education, fuel poverty and the environment. For the past four years, the company has worked alongside the Royal Society for Nature Conservation to establish a fund for local environment projects. So far, grants totalling £190,000 have been awarded.

The utility company has also partnered with Age Concern and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Powergen's head of sustainable development Bill Kyte thinks it's a good idea to partner with a charity, provided you have a "common objective".

"In retail, we've been working with Age Concern on things such as fuel poverty,

he says. "We've been working with a number of organisations offering the Green Tariff in connection with WWF."

The greater the interest in CSR on a corporate level, the larger it appears on the media radar. Events such as the World Economic Forum, the May Day protests, 11 September and the Enron scandal have all contributed to keeping CSR in the headlines. And any charity attempting to take advantage of this has found column inches relatively easy to come by. Think of all the paper devoted to the recently announced deal between HSBC, WWF and several other organisations, which amounts to the biggest-ever corporate donation to green causes.

But there is still a way to go. A league table drawn up by Morley Fund Management suggests that 45 of the FTSE 100, including HSBC, Dixons and BSkyB, fail to pass key CSR tests. Premier Oil has been targeted by the Burma Campaign UK as an example of corporate irresponsibility. Last month, a group of exiled Burmese citizens staged a sit down demonstration outside Premier Oil's annual general meeting in London. Premier Oil is the UK's largest investor in the region and the protesters believe it is propping up Burma's illegitimate ruling regime. "It's not a level playing field,

says Macleod. "There are some companies that are doing extraordinary things, partly because it's part of their culture. Other corporations are saying: 'Yes we need to be seen to be doing something, but we've only just started.'"

So is this sudden pricking of the corporate conscience a result of a higher regard for social responsibility, or is it simply marketing spin designed to dupe the public? If it is spin, it seems that the spinners have been swotting up on the numbers. According to research by Mori, the proportion of consumers who regard an organisation's social responsibility as "very important

has increased from 28 per cent in 1998 to 46 per cent in 2001. One fifth of consumers now select or boycott products on social grounds. News, perhaps, to the likes of McDonald's, which must be tiring of sweeping up the broken glass on May Day.

Powergen's Kyte thinks companies can't survive on spin alone. "If you want to be the sort of company that is going to be sustainable in the future, you have to look not only to the image but to the actual substance behind it,

he says. "It's no good having an image that shatters into pieces as soon as something happens."

Corporations, it seems, can up their social standing considerably by partnering with the voluntary sector. But a partnership runs two ways.

According to Macleod, it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. "It's not so much a dialogue, but a kind of triologue,

she says, referring to the two sectors' involvement with the community that they operate in. "This is very much where the voluntary sector comes in. Charities are connected into the community - the corporations are not. Charities are the ones that understand where the needs are the greatest."

The UK's commercial sector may be some way behind the voluntary sector's philanthropic approach, but it does want to catch up. Unfortunately, not for the same reasons. "It's pressure from the financial sector,

says Annabel James, director of charity at Capital Radio. "Companies need to be seen to be transparent, they need to be more accountable, they need to be responsive, and that's driven by the City."

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