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Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords


October 27, 2023

Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords


Equity, diversity and inclusion. Climate change. Social and economic inequality. Public health. Society is being asked to deal with these critical issues and so many more. And businesses cannot afford to overlook them either. Increasingly, they are feeling the pressure to put actionable initiatives in place to ensure they come across as socially responsible, failing which their image, their bottom line and their very existence may be doomed.

Executive Education HEC Montréal recently conducted a webinar on this topic, entitled Corporate Social Responsibility: Game-Changer or Gimmick?, in conjunction with La Presse.

Three speakers joined moderator François Cardinal, La Presse’s Vice-President, Information, and Deputy Editor, on October 11:

  • Luciano Barin Cruz, Professor, Department of Management; Director, Office of Sustainable Tourism; Director and Co-Founder of the IDEOS Hub, HEC Montréal.
  • Stéphanie Émond, Vice-President and Chief Impact Officer, FinDev Canada, an organization devoted to supporting development through the private sector. The goal of FinDev Canada’s financing and investment products and technical assistance solutions is to promote sustainable and inclusive growth in emerging markets and developing economies.
  • Frantz Saintellemy, President and Chief Operating Officer, LeddarTech, a leader in environmental sensing solutions for autonomous vehicles. He is also Université de Montréal’s 14th Chancellor.

How do businesses approach the issue CSR?

“Game-changer or gimmick? Both. We see some businesses go about it methodically, comprehensively and with all due transparency. But then there are others that are just looking to boost their image, without actually making any substantial changes to their business model. One thing’s for sure: there’s no way we can achieve our sustainable development goals without the active and sincere participation of the business community.”

Stéphanie Émond

Frantz Saintellemy addressed the potential conflict between protecting shareholders’ interests and taking socially responsible action:

“A CEO can be as socially responsible as they like, but if there isn’t money to be made somewhere, it won’t last. Hence the importance of developing a business strategy where any such actions can yield tangible financial gains. When [CSR] is little more than a marketing tool, it won’t stick around.”

Frantz Saintellemy

Luciano Barin Cruz added that there’s nothing wrong as such in using CSR to strengthen a company’s brand. If nothing else, it helps advance the conversation about social and environmental issues.

“It makes talking about these things a matter of course […] and helps us understand why organizations pay any heed” to topics like climate change. However, some corporations do indeed treat these opportunities like publicity stunts. Actions have to be firmly embedded in a business strategy if they are to take root.”

Luciano Barin Cruz

Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords

Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords

Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords


What businesses have to gain

Barin Cruz went on to explain that there are four different reasons why companies choose to act in a socially responsible way: to fend off risk, to explore opportunity, to comply with regulatory requirements and to uphold moral values. Right now, climate risk is high on the list of motivating factors. The recent forest fires in Quebec and other extreme weather events are compelling examples of elements that can put certain types of corporate assets in jeopardy.

“But even if climate change is on everyone’s lips right now, social issues should sometimes be an even greater priority. [In some places,] it’s what I have to address first because the world I live in is one of ongoing inequality and poverty.”

Luciano Barin Cruz

As for issues involving moral values, they tend to be context-sensitive:

“Because we weren’t thinking diversity, inclusion and equity in 2020 doesn’t mean we weren’t moral,” said Saintellemy in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Or in 2021 for that matter. But in 2023–2024, when other issues [came to the fore], things changed. The transition toward a fair and equal society will be longer and harder than we think.”

Frantz Saintellemy

Choosing your battles

Before putting CSR practices in place, organizations need to identify which issues are most relevant to them and the context they operate in, and build a strategy around this. For small and mid-sized businesses, this can be tricky. Quebec may eventually have to develop an ecosystem of sorts to support them in their transition.

“One way or another, though, they’ll still have to do it. Regulations are changing. Publicly traded companies will have to publish their CSR indicators to meet these requirements. They may have to ask the smaller organizations they do business with for things like their CO2 emissions statistics, for example.”

Luciano Barin Cruz

A number of international organizations are currently working to establish a standard set of KPIs that will allow businesses to measure and benchmark their progress. Barin Cruz recommended getting ahead of the curve in this regard and complying with these emerging standards developed by the International Sustainability Standards Board and the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group.


The limits of CSR

Sometimes, even the best intentions can backfire. Companies who go the CSR route may be accused of greenwashing. Or greenhushing, which is the choice to hide green initiatives to avoid cynical or hostile backlash.

“There’s also something known as greenwishing,or good intentions without any concrete plans to make them happen. That’s a dead end.”

Stéphanie Émond

The tensions between what a company wants to do from a CSR perspective and what they can actually accomplish can be difficult to work through.

“Take Altria, for example, the new name for Philip Morris. Altria is probably one of the most socially responsible companies on the planet! They have programs that give back massively to the communities they operate in. They have environmental programs, DEI programs, and fair and equitable governance. And, yet, at the end of the day, they sell cigarettes.”

Frantz Saintellemy

Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Buzzwords


A few tips on how to do it right

At the end of the webinar, the moderator asked all three panelists to talk about something they feel gets overlooked.

“We have to pay more attention to the social dimension underlying corporate and individual action. The numbers I saw about a month ago say that we’re in the midst of the largest famine in the history of humanity, despite how wealthy we are overall.”

Frantz Saintellemy

“The role of internal teams, who often have better ideas than the people at the top, not to the mention the ability to turn them into reality.”

Stéphanie Émond

“All these concepts need to be democratized within organizations and with their employees.This is critical in ensuring leaders have the support they need to introduce policies that actually do what they are supposed to do.”

Luciano Barin Cruz

 

The recorded webinar is available to watch now.

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