In the name of CSR

Nigel Smith, CSR policy director at the British Retail Consortium discusses the sector's progress towards corporate responsibility

During my tenure at the BRC I have witnessed a changing attitude among retailers across a wide range of issues – but particularly the environment – a change illustrated by the growth of the importance of corporate social responsibility.
Three years ago, CSR was rarely talked of at the BRC, although it was growing in importance in the world outside. Now I find myself responsible for a diverse range of policies from environment and transport to regeneration and crime.

This portfolio has evolved due to the widespread adoption of CSR by our member companies and the BRC’s attempts to align policy with these emerging issues.
New title – fresh start?

A steady metamorphosis has seen my environmental contacts adopting a CSR role, or the word sustainability creeping into their job title. They have begun to join forces with corporate affairs teams to showcase a growing number of impressive initiatives – community, environmental, employment practices – take your pick.
In some cases retailers have published dedicated CSR reports and held stakeholder meetings to celebrate the dawn of improved transparency and engagement. However, what has this really meant to the sector in respect to on the ground activities?
We see CSR providing a template to co-ordinate this range of activities, whether community, environmental or supply chain focused, enabling the sector to engage with a range of stakeholders from consumers, employees, fund managers and the media on positive progress and refreshingly innovative programmes.

One vital question remains: have companies managed to imbed CSR into their mainstream business strategy? In my opinion, CSR has moved beyond the honeymoon period, and recent discussions at the European Multi-Stakeholder Forums have enabled key players to discuss the future of CSR.

A voluntary approach?

The BRC and its members have advocated a voluntary approach to CSR, but NGOs have urged the EU and other public authorities to “shift gears from merely moderating dialogue to developing policies, setting standards and, where necessary, enforcing them”. Not surprisingly the business community has hit back and the European Commission, as arbiter, has effectively put CSR on ice.

The debate between binding and voluntary approaches will continue for some time, but that doesn’t mean progress has stopped.

I have always been impressed by the level of detail contained on some retailers’ websites and in environmental reports across issues from waste arisings to energy usage. These have now been incorporated into a company’s CSR report.

Apart from being well written, these reports are stimulating positive change and enabling companies to understand the risks to their business. This has led to retailers taking environmental issues and turning them into business opportunities under the name of CSR.

The BRC’s role

The BRC has a role to play too. Trade bodies allow companies to air progressive policies in annual reports and the media, while distancing their brands from more reactionary policies put forward in the name of the industry as a whole. I hope that our work across a range of issues is becoming more aligned to the progressive nature of the retail sector as we move towards developing a business case for sustainable practices.

I believe that the retailing community has taken the lead in driving forward a broad range of CSR activities and has been active in the introduction of both innovative thinking and practical solutions that deliver sustainable outcomes.
How the sector now responds and helps shape the next phase of CSR will be of great interest and a tough challenge – I just hope this doesn’t stem the innovation and degree of freedom on offer to retailers that has made this such a dynamic arena to be working in. If we allow ourselves to be forced down the route of questionnaire fatigue, league tables where comparisons can’t be drawn and pointless CSR frameworks then the environment will surely be the loser.

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