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CIOs can take leadership role in corporate social responsibility

Companies that take corporate social responsibility seriously are more trusted by the public, and CIOs can be leaders in making CSR a reality.

When it comes to things like trust, companies are not always held in high esteem. We trust companies to make good products, not to poison us and not to leave credit card databases unencrypted, but when it comes to most other things, trust in corporate America is at an all-time low.

Scot PetersenScot Petersen

President Barack Obama's recent re-election campaign made trust in business a key talking point, and as he wrote to his followers after his victory was secure, "Today is the clearest proof yet that, against the odds, ordinary Americans can overcome powerful interests."

But, there is some hope and positive movement in making sure businesses are taking corporate social responsibility (CSR) more seriously, according to a recent survey by BSR and GlobeScan. The survey shows a connection between building trust and "being increasingly transparent about business practices and by measuring and demonstrating positive social and environmental impacts."

While only 18% of the 556 respondents held some significant level of trust in businesses, that number has grown from 12% three years ago, while little or no trust has decreased from 35% to 26%. At the same time, the survey shows that "increase transparency of business practices" and the ability to "measure and demonstrate positive social and environmental impacts" are the top two priorities of businesses that want to improve public trust in business.

In the business world … the notion of [sustainability] integration into business operations gets a lot of attention.

Aron Cramer,
president and CEO, BSR

BSR leaders know there is a long way to go, but that the idea of businesses taking the lead on CSR and sustainability is no longer on the margins.

"In the business world the attention to sustainability has been very stable, and growing, and the notion of integration into business operations gets a lot of attention," said BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer at the recent BSR 2012 conference in New York City. Cramer noted that many businesses, such as Marks and Spencer, are using sustainability goals and benchmarks as factors in determining executive compensation and bonuses.

Challenges of sustainability

While the survey showed that increased transparency, measurement and innovation are the three most important indicators in building trust, leadership and business performance, these also are the hardest to implement. Sixty-two percent of the respondents said their number one challenge is "integration of sustainability into core business functions."

But this is also an area where CIOs can play a major leadership role. One key area that will help enable transparency and measurement is in sustainability reporting. While not yet used widely, sustainability reporting is the best means for establishing progress in sustainability, according to the survey. Sustainability reporting enables companies to disclose the economic, environmental, manufacturing and other impacts the companies create outside of profit margins and investment return to shareholders.

Just as Sarbanes Oxley and other compliance frameworks became commonplace for financial, risk management and security disclosure, frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative and emerging standards such as the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings will become useful in moving your organization forward toward being good global citizens and agents for positive change.

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