OVER THE PAST number of years, public expectations of business have increased as people have become increasingly aware of the importance of the social and environmental impact company’s have. This means companies are now expected to contribute to society in a much more meaningful and positive way.
Business norms have changed – the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has hugely increased and has now become a priority for business leaders globally.
Earlier this month, ESB was given the overall award for outstanding achievement in CSR at the 2016 Chambers Ireland Awards. CSR is not something new to ESB. We have been doing it since our foundation in 1927 and long before the term was coined.
The rural electrification programme, which ESB started in 1946, created strong links with local communities and an understanding of their needs. We recognised from an early stage that as a leading Irish company, we had to show leadership by adopting responsible business practices and contributing to community life.
Importance of being responsible
So, why should businesses care about CSR? Businesses of all sizes should care not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also good for business – the benefits are many, from attracting and retaining staff to mitigating risks and increasing competitiveness.
CSR encompasses how you treat your staff, ensuring that your workplace is a diverse, inclusive and respectful place where people can be themselves and perform to their best abilities, as well as having opportunities to make a real difference in their communities. Happy staff are productive staff.
Embedding CSR into your business practice can also positively affect your relationships and engagement with your key stakeholders including customers, communities, suppliers and partners.
Of course, CSR can present a number of challenges. Many companies might still consider it an ‘add-on’, or not as relevant for their business as sales or customer satisfaction, for example.
However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that customers are now demanding to know more about the products and services they use and how the companies they purchase from are giving back to society and minimising their negative impacts.
Smaller organisations might think that CSR is only for bigger corporates, but companies don’t need to have big budgets to embed these responsible practices and communicate on the work they do.
We know from our partners and work with SMEs that small businesses can build and enhance their competitiveness by improving and reporting on their responsible business practices.
Ireland’s first national plan on CSR, ‘Good for Business, Good for the Community’, was launched by government in April 2014. This plan is a real milestone for Ireland and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to embedding CSR and sharing with the business sector how CSR can contribute positively to their work.
Supporting big issues
CSR plays a strategic role in how we conduct our business – as a utility company we are acutely aware that we must manage our impact on the environment, our communities, stakeholders, customers, suppliers and partners.
We believe we have a responsibility as a corporate citizen to support Ireland in addressing the challenges of climate change while ensuring an energy supply for Ireland that is clean, reliable and affordable.
For example, last year through Electric Ireland, ESB helped customers save over €40 million in energy costs. In 2015, 24% of all energy generated on the island of Ireland was renewable – 13% of this was ESB’s energy, generated through wind and hydro generation. Additionally, last year ESB was able to reduce emissions by 37%.
Looking to the future, CSR will continue to evolve and develop. The term ‘CSR’ may not even be in use, with many other terms such as ‘sustainable business’ or ‘responsible business’ being used by companies and organisations today. The term is really unimportant, what matters is the meaning, the movement and the action behind it.
What we see coming down the line for CSR is increased partnership and collaboration, further compliance with global best practice, but also a renewed focus on local issues and priorities.
There will be no space for silos, while employees will be empowered and will have the knowledge of how to integrate CSR into their particular area of work.
It is also likely that, in the future, many of today’s CSR activities will become mandatory requirements for business, however there will still be a space for those companies willing to go above and beyond legislation.
Anne Cooney is group corporate social responsibility coordinator of ESB.
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