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November 30, 2008
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CSR vs RECESSION:Is sustainability sustainable?




As the global economic turmoil continues to bite, will corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainaibilty finds themselves struggling for air as companies focus on delivering greater value for money and cut back on everything that isn't a business essential? Pete Roythorne raises the thorny question: can you afford to keep going green?

Sustainability and CSR have taken something of a back seat in the past few months thanks to the increasing reality of a global economic slowdown. But just because they may have slipped out of the headlines doesn’t mean they should be allowed to slip off the business agenda.

The meetings and events industry has come a long way in terms of developing its sustainability credentials, and it would be disappointing to think that all that good work is about to go out of the window. In a tough economic climate, tough decisions have to be made, and with everyone focused on delivering value for money to the customers there is a likelihood that people will see CSR as a fringe activity and not a business essential.

“There is no doubt that the current tough economic climate will make companies think twice about spending money on anything but essentials to their business,” says Amanda Barnes, chief executive of Faversham House Group, a publisher and organiser of environmental magazines and exhibitions. “This will be a real test of companies’ commitment to sustainability and whether it has become embedded in a company’s culture.”

 


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However, as Barnes explains, there are many aspects of making a company sustainable that fit well with saving money and improving the efficiency of an organisation.

“Energy costs often form a large proportion of many companies’ expenditure and anything that can be done to minimise these through a more sustainable approach will no doubt continue to be invested in,” she explains. “I think it will depend on just how bad the recession gets. If it is a question of survival, then the wider definition of sustainability will come to the fore – a company has to be economically viable to be sustainable.”

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Chloe Couchman, business and major events PR manager for VisitLondon, agrees. “Unfortunately the recession is challenging the CSR topic," she says. "However, companies need to understand that having sustainable policies in place can save them money, rather than costing them more.

"For example, using low-energy light bulbs can save on electricity, and they are better for the planet. Meanwhile, recycling schemes in conjunction with your local council contribute massively to reducing landfill sites, and there’s no additional cost. Additionally, working with local communities is a way for companies to put something back into their local area, and can be a way of redistributing any monies they need to spend in a given year.”

Couchman continues: “Some sustainable initiatives will cost money initially, but should reap long-term benefits if they are well thought through, and become company culture, with objectives set to reduce targets.”

James Mark, group head of event management and 2012 Olympics project director at ExCeL London, believes that for those organisations that really understand what building a sustainable business means the recession should have little impact, but for those that are just paying lip service it’s just the excuse they are looking for.

“Actually, it should help to strengthen the case to keep developing CSR and sustainability principles within the organisation as this will help to ride out the rough times as it allows for the focus to not be solely about turning a profit,” he explains. “For the organisations that are doing it as a bit of ‘greenwash’ then no doubt when financially things get tough and cutbacks are necessary, this will be one of the first things to go as an unnecessary nicety.”

Fiona Pelham, head of Positive Impact and Organise This, adds weight to Mark’s thoughts, saying: “Those companies with a clear understanding and implementation of good economic, environmental and social practice will be in a much better position to survive the recession. Why? Because they will benefit from better staff engagement, lower overheads from environmental initiatives often. Ultimately, a responsible economic policy is vital in these times.”

Green business is good business

So, there is no reason why green issues should be put on the back burner during tough economic times. Delivering value for customers can not be separated from the good business and social practice which sustainability promotes.

Yes, we will have to watch what we spend and there are some initiatives that will have to wait, but in the long term, having sustainable business processes actually brings real returns to the bottom line.

"There is no reason for organisations to believe that they cannot afford to keep going green,” says Lynne Geary, sales and marketing manager at Edinburgh Conference Centre at Heriot-Watt University. “CSR and sustainability should be something that is at the core of every organisation and not something that is done because they feel that they have to. CSR is an investment in the organisation and will benefit them and their stakeholders in many ways.”

But it’s ExCeL London’s Mark who raises the most chilling warning to all those not convinced.

“Let’s not forget that one of the key reasons that the recession is on us is thanks to unsustainable business practices, being too concerned with profiteering and not focused enough on balancing profit with social and environmental targets.”

It’s very apparent that if we don’t stick to our green ways then we will pay for it in the long run and maybe even in the relatively short term, too. So the message across the industry is: Do what you can within your financial constraints, just keeping looking for the little steps, and you will find you have soon come a long way on the road to sustainability, whatever the economic backdrop.


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