Social responsibility vital for sustainable business

A RECENT wave of interest in concepts such as the triple bottom line and civic leadership has some organisations looking for ways to justify and measure this new social business responsibility.

Business philosopher Professor Charles Handy says: “Business and organisations have a privilege denied to ordinary mortals – they don’t have to die. This makes them especially responsible”.

This implies a need for approaches to business that are sustainable beyond the life of the current executive team.

Such far-sightedness is unusual in the midst of three to five-year contracts for senior executives, with performance measures often aimed exclusively at the financial bottom line.

It is also rare when the future extends to producing a more socially responsible organisation committed to building an enriched community as well as a successful business.

One well established aspect of social responsibility is the environmental agenda. High-profile organisations such as the Body Shop have grown substantial businesses on the back of this movement.

While not all organisations are fully compliant with social responsibility, the health, safety and environment dimensions are ingrained in our performance measures.

This is illustrated by such things as the CERES Principles (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies 1989) that offer the following 10 guidelines.

  • Protection of the biosphere.

  • Sustainable use of natural resources.

  • Reduction and disposal of wastes.

  • Energy conservation.

  • Risk reduction.

  • Safe products and services.

  • Environmental restoration.

  • Informing the public.

  • Management commitment.

  • Audits and reports.

Performance measures that support other aspects of social responsibility are less common, although the notion of sustainability is gathering some momentum. In his book Cannibals With Forks, The Triple Bottom Line of the 21st Century (2000), John Elkington asks: “Is it progress if a cannibal eats with a fork?” The cannibals in this question are the business firms whose only mission appears to be a quest to devour their competitors. The fork that these cannibals use to progress to the next stage of civilisation is the concept of sustainable business.

The Global Reporting Initiative (1997) ( is an attempt to build a business case around the concept of sustainability.

The initiative has three ambitious aims:

  • elevate sustainability reporting to financial reporting levels;

  • design, disseminate and promote standardised reporting; and

  • ensure permanent and effective institutional host to support such reporting.

Success at these aims would see us all working with an additional set of performance criteria against which both our shareholders and customers could make a judgement about our organisation.

If you want to get a head start and begin building an organisation capable of coping with this different way of operating, then you may wish to consider the following (Nelson 1998) characteristics of organisations creating societal value-adding.

  • They have values-based transformational leadership.

  • They encourage cross-boundary commitment to learning.

  • They build stakeholder linkages and relationships.

  • They develop a wide range of performance levers.

The opportunity and challenge now exists for us to apply a new level of thinking that can create a sustainable business case for greater social responsibility within all our organisations.

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