Discrete or concerted corporate social responsibility? Defining an international CSR framework

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an increasingly strategic topic for many organizations in response to their stakeholders’ expectations. Yet while commitment to CSR might be growing, programs tend to be conceived, delivered and measured in isolation. As a result, the social and environmental value of CSR isn’t being maximized. So, is there a better way to structure, focus and coordinate CSR activities between organizations and sectors? And what difference would that make in terms of outcomes for society and the planet?

What is CSR?

A formal definition of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is ‘a form of private business self-regulation which aims to contribute to societal goals of a philanthropic, activist, or charitable nature by engaging in or supporting volunteering or ethically-oriented practices’. (Lee, Nancy; Kotler, Philip (2013). Corporate social responsibility doing the most good for your company and your cause. Hoboken)

In practice, many companies tend to deploy their CSR activities around a loosely defined 'commitment to society'. Within that, these are intended to enhance any of the following:

Some sources refer to CSR as an ‘investment’, which makes sense for organizations with the declared goal of earning money for their shareholders'

But what is on the table for organizations apart from money?

From disparate landscape into concerted action

According to Harvard Business School, CSR activities can be categorized into Environment, Ethics, Philanthropy and Economy. Yet what’s clear when looking across the CSR landscape is that there is no standardization on CSR among companies.

Each builds its own strategy without aligning with other organizations or with any general directive or structure.

As a result, CSR is a kind of jungle of different initiatives developing in different directions, which means that they are not generating any joint effect. So how can CSR activities be combined and coalesce to deliver added value?

What’s clear when looking across the CSR landscape is that there is no standardization on CSR among companies.

Each builds its own strategy without aligning with other organizations or with any general directive or structure.

The first step is to achieve a consensus on the principles of CSR.
I believe that a company’s CSR strategy and activities should be defined and measured thinking ‘out of the box’ and from a starting point that is not about economic gain, which is internationally accepted and endorsed.

The good news is work has already been done at a global level, which companies can leverage to align and measure their CSR activities in a coordinated way. The United Nations has developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an agreed list of ambitions to improve the wellbeing of people and societies.

My formal proposal is to invite companies to define, act and measure their CSR programs in line with these SDGs. It will then be possible to see how each goal is addressed and enhanced by a group of companies. This will also enable different organizations and sectors to take joint social actions. Having a large amount of CSR programs with the same approach, CSR activities may evolve from isolated actions to concerted actions with much better outcomes.

Contributing to the UN Sustainability Development Goals

So, let’s look at what kinds of CSR activities will support a selection of the UN SDGs.

For a digital services company, for example, CSR activities could include:

  • Developing and delivering, either for free or at a low price, a digital app for managing a network of microcredits across a territory. Microcredits were devised as a way to support start-ups and entrepreneurs who don’t have the economic means access to traditional bank loans. With the aim of helping to reduce poverty, this activity would be aligned with SDG 1 – No Poverty and measured in terms of loan amounts.
  • Developing and delivering, for free or at a low price, a track & trace system for tracking food status and temperature monitoring. With the aim of reducing hunger and fighting disease, these activities would be aligned with SDG 2 – Zero hunger and SDG 3 – Good health and well-being, and measured in tons of food monitored and validated.

And here are two examples of combined and concerted CSR actions:

  • As part of its CSR program, a medical company creates a line of products to fight diseases linked to malnutrition, such as iron support for anaemia or high protein pills for marasmus or kwashiorkor. If combined with the food track & trace system delivered by the digital service company through its CSR program, the distribution of these products can be focused on the most problematic geographical spots.
  • As part of its CSR program, a financial institution is opening a microcredit line for low-income countries. Combining this with the microcredit digital app delivered by the digital service company through its CSR program will help to develop the economy of a specific region.

Just in these two examples, we can see the significant added power of CSR activities when they are designed, delivered and measured in a concerted way.

The UN SDGs already exist and have been accepted by governments and institutions around the world. Organizations in every sector have a clear opportunity now to leverage these to increase the benefits delivered for CSR beneficiaries, from fighting disease and hunger, to building more sustainable and inclusive economies that secure a better, more equitable future for all.

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About Josema Cavanillas
Global Business Development Executive for Life Sciences and member of the Scientific Community
Josema joined Atos in March 1993. He started working on R&D projects and founded the division ARI (Atos Research & Innovation), which he led until 2015. He has been Head of BDS Iberia and member of Iberia ExCom until 2018. Then he joined the IoT Horizontal Practice where he worked as Worldwide Partner Management Director until June 2021. On July the 1st 2021 he joined HLS as Global Business Development Executive Director for Life Sciences.

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