Published on January 21st, 2014 | by | Credit:

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Expert series: “Corporate Social Responsibility can be a way out of the crisis”. Interview with Sue Bird

Why is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) so important? And what are the main implications of CSR on society?

CSR is important because it brings together companies being profitable and doing business well, in addition to fulfilling two policy objectives for the European Commission: the growth and competitiveness issues that the European Commission promotes, which the companies act out, and its wider public policy role in addressing environmental and social challenges.

And similarly, what do you see as the main challenges in the coordination and implementation of CSR, both for larger enterprises and for small- and medium sized companies?

The challenges for the larger and some smaller companies are most often in the international field at the moment. Large and small companies are dependent on each other to trade profitably across borders, and so our economies are interdependent. The management of cross-border supply chains is increasingly important. Companies should pay attention to their human rights footprints in this context.

For the smaller companies, the challenge is to be able to reach them, since they are so numerous. Many SMEs already do CSR quite naturally by being present and active in their local communities. But there are challenges for them if they are an actor in a supply chain. Where they are responsible and espouse CSR, they should take advantage of this and be aware that they can and should be more public about what they do.

In general, Europeans tend to be more sceptical towards the influence of large companies than of small companies. Do you think the reason is that small companies are more engaged already in their local communities? Or why do people seem to trust small companies more than large ones?

Maybe it is just that they are indeed closer to the grassroots economic context, whereas the multinational companies are viewed as being at a distance, and more detached. I also think that larger companies can be viewed currently as needing to “clean up their act”, in certain ways.

One aspect of CSR is that it is a self-regulatory practice. Voluntary guidelines for CSR exist, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but it is up to the companies themselves to adopt CSR. Do you think that there should be more monitoring, or compulsory practices for companies, supported by legislation, so that there is some form of CSR enforcement?  

This is a key point that continues to be debated on and off everywhere.  For instance, NGOs are often forthright in saying that of course responsible business needs to be regulated somehow, whereas the companies are saying “no, please, trust us to do our job”. From the Commission’s perspective I think we respect that CSR activity is basically voluntary, so we wouldn’t want to legislate for CSR per se.

Another criticism of CSR has been that companies use these policies to attract customers rather than to focus on the actual implications of their CSR work. What is your take on that?  

This has certainly been an issue – often referred to as “green-washing”. I am sure it is true that some companies “try it on” and supply unsuspecting clients with information that looks good on the surface, but isn’t necessarily proven by underlying practice. We try to encourage a more genuine commitment to CSR on the part of the companies we work with. If you can achieve mainstreamed commitment, then this stands a better chance of being filtered through to the rest of the organisation.

One challenge for CSR in SMEs is monitoring it, because they often lack resources or time to do that. What is the connection between CSR activities and SME’s in terms of monitoring?

It is not easy for SMEs to monitor their social and environmental activities, because they don’t always have the resources to do it. They run a tight ship. What we are trying to do at European Union level is to make sure that SMEs face as little “bureaucracy” as possible.

Concerning the future of CSR, do you think that it is a tool to be used to facilitate an exit from the financial crisis, and to promote economic growth in Europe?

I think CSR can indeed be a way out of the crisis. You’ve got companies still creating quality products, paying attention to satisfying their clients and being profitable, which contributes to the economy and growth. On the other hand, these same companies can deliver on public policy social and environmental objectives as well, – a key element in addressing the added disadvantages that have come on the scene since the beginning of the crisis.

What role do you think organisations such as UNITEE, representing entrepreneurs and business professionals with a migrant background, can play in CSR activity?

Organisations such as yours are very important for promoting business-driven CSR. You bring together on to one platform many businesses who adhere to common responsible membership commitments which is one of the reasons why we are talking today.

You are also a link for your companies to the international world, to government institutions, to the European institutions. This is a two-way process. You can advocate on your members’ behalf, and you can take away information that will be useful to your members and they can then comment in return.

Sue Bird, at the European Commission’s DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, is Policy Co-ordinator for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This means that she leads policy formulation on CSR, together with the Commission’s DG Enterprise and Industry. CSR is a concept that is described by the Commission “as the responsibility of companies for their impact on society and on the environment.” It emphasises the positive impacts of business on society and the need to reduce the negative impacts.

Sue Bird, at the European Commission’s DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, is Policy Co-ordinator for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This means that she leads policy formulation on CSR, together with the Commission’s DG Enterprise and Industry. CSR is a concept that is described by the Commission “as the responsibility of companies for their impact on society and on the environment.” It emphasises the positive impacts of business on society and the need to reduce the negative impacts. 

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