OPINION: Hot Issue - Is social responsibility just a corporate marketing tool?

British American Tobacco last week sparked a heated debate after it was invited to speak at a prominent corporate social responsibility event. Some of the most controversial companies have brought in social responsibility agendas, but are they really committed or is it just a marketing smokescreen?

Sharon McClenaghan, senior policy officer, Christian Aid


There seems to be a significant gap between the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility and the reality of companies' activities on the ground.

For instance, British American Tobacco has made CSR its stock in trade, repositioning itself as a "responsible company in a controversial industry".

But an investigation by Christian Aid, which concluded last year, found that the company is not meeting its own standards in terms of the way it contracts farmers in Brazil.

We uncovered many allegations, made by family farmers working under contract to the company's Brazilian subsidiary, about the poor health and safety conditions and the low prices paid for the products.

Our work on the ground has led us to conclude that companies cannot be trusted to be socially responsible when their driving force is profit.

Christian Aid is calling for legally binding, internationally agreed regulation of companies to enforce human rights and environmental standards.

Steve Tibbett, head of campaigns and policy, War on Want


It is about time that NGOs fell out of love with big corporations. It was never an honest relationship and we always felt cheated. Developing countries cannot rely on corporations to deliver an end to poverty, given that companies don't even fulfil their basic tax obligations. This costs developing countries at least £32 billion a year in lost receipts, but you won't find a single word about that in the glossy corporate social responsibility brochures.

Big companies have repeatedly failed the poor because the poor have no money. Companies can't be blamed for this; it's simply not in their immediate interest to help liberate people from poverty.

Corporate accountability, rather than corporate responsibility, is the new game in town. We want to know what corporations are up to, figure out what they should and shouldn't do, and hold them to it. This, ultimately, is about democracy.

David Hudson, director of communications and corporate affairs, Nestle UK


Corporate social responsibility is very different from corporate marketing and cause related marketing. The latter two usually refer to activities where the brand or the company name is overtly linked to a piece of activity, often short term, via paid-for advertising or involving some kind of consumer collection scheme.

CSR has much deeper roots and needs to be sustainable over a very long period of time. It refers to the role of a company in the communities where it operates, this includes our role as an employer and the company's impact on the environment, including community relations programmes. In the case of Nestle, centred on some 500 factories in approximately 100 countries, while it is not philanthropy, neither is it based on paid-for communication or marketing programmes.

In the UK, our Make Space initiative will provide after-school care for teenagers, working with the Kids' Clubs Network. This kind of initiative, along with many others we run around the world, combines with our environmental and human resource policies to recognise the role that we should play in our local communities.

Sue Adkins, director, Business in the Community


Corporate social responsibility is, of course, not just corporate marketing.

It is about the way a company does business and needs to run through every part of the organisation. Businesses are facing a challenging future with stronger and increased expectations of CSR. There is a rising tide of expectation from consumers and other stakeholders, demanding that companies raise their standards across their operations.

Study after study regularly identifies that businesses may very well be socially responsible, but that the public simply does not know about it. Cause related marketing provides a highly effective way of making an organisation's CSR visible in the public domain.

Marketing and cause related marketing can't be used as sticking plasters for product or service inadequacies - in fact, they are likely to expose them. But done well, cause related marketing can provide the glue between business ethics, business basics, consumer engagement and bottom line benefits, while also benefiting charities.

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