IT firms can boost CSR 'enlightenment'

Tech companies have potential to lead and "enlighten" societal consciousness around corporate social responsibility, and spur wider adoption, academic says.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--IT companies, the prolific ones especially, don't just have the potential to directly drive corporate social responsibility (CSR) action in the commercial realm, but also influence consumers who in turn indirectly foster ethical standards in their own organizations, an academic says.

Dennis Driscoll, an adjunct professor at the National University of Ireland's School of Law, said instead of CSR as an onerous burden to bear, technology corporations, especially prominent ones such as Apple, Google and Facebook, have the "potential to enlighten" society at large, considering the pervasiveness of their brands and products amongst the general public. He was speaking at the Fuji Xerox Sustainability Conference here Wednesday.

Asked about the extent of influence and impact tech companies can effect, Driscoll replied that IT businesses need not limit their CSR efforts to those directly related to their domain or ecosystem, although it is most likely they would start out with green IT and supply chain management. For instance, that Apple publicly announced it requires 90 percent of its final assembly suppliers to publish annual CSR reports is "good news".

Whatever kind of market they play in, companies all "have their own passions" and there is no reason why a company, tech or not, cannot be a "pioneer" in other CSR issues, he highlighted. Just earlier this week, Web giant Google recently launched a social campaign, "Legalize Love", that tackles discrimination against homosexuality.

The reason is that while the term "corporate social responsibility" may take its name from being driven by corporations, the whole point of addressing ethical and sustainability issues boils down to changing the mindset of individuals, the professor explained.

CSR comprises several broad dimensions and is never just about one area as most organizations and individuals would tend to see, he pointed out. It covers every concern related to the social responsibility of business operations--from environment to philanthropy, corporate governance, ethical business practices, human rights and labor rights.

Individuals behind corporate social responsibility
Driscoll said elements espoused in CSR like caring for the environment, fair and equal treatment of workers regardless of skin color, age, gender or other factors, are actually "broad and profound issues" of human society, and not "glorious ethical pursuits" for corporations. So, it is about "raising the consciousness" of such thinking and engraining that into culture, and this must start from educating young minds from as early as primary school.

"If people aren't exposed to that kind of thinking in classrooms or the media, how can they be expected to understand CSR in boardrooms?" he asked.

The current general lack of social consciousness on the individual level means that it will take time before CSR becomes "common wisdom" in the boardroom, Driscoll emphasized.

Consumers getting more aware, market for CSR products
That said, he expressed optimism for the future. Already, consumers in many industrialized countries are increasingly concerned that companies--which goods and services they purchase--demonstrate good CSR behavior, while stakeholders and shareholders also put pressure on companies to improve CSR, he highlighted.

Come the near future, companies will have to account for their "social value", not just their financial performance, he added, pointing to the "Occupy Wall Street" movement which he described was a lagged response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Agreeing with Driscoll, Mok Chee Hong, sustainability ambassador at Fuji Xerox Singapore, said the influential ability of tech companies "literally impacts the entire value chain" right down to consumer behavior.

Cultivating the right attitude is as just as important as carrying out the actions, he said, and when CSR enters the ecosystem of companies and its partners and suppliers, consumers use goods that were procured and manufactured responsibly and then demand the same for other products they use.

To cater to the growing CSR push, Fuji Xerox launched an Eco-Print Dashboard--an online portal that allows its customers to view their printing and power consumption and compare their efficiency against industry averages, said Daniel Sim, business innovation consultant at Fuji Xerox Singapore.

He added that CSR has hitherto moved in a top-down direction in organizations. There has been a lack of proactive volunteerism from the ground up within organizations as well as a lack of collaboration between organizations, without which CSR will not be "pushed to the next level".

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