by Patrick Jelly
Managing Director, Pitney Bowes UK

CR and CSR sit among those sets of initials – like B2B, CRM, SME – that have simply become assimilated into everyday business speak. CR is a broader term for CSR. To understand what these initials literally stand for is the easy part but, as a casual trawl of the web will reveal, to define what corporate responsibility or the older term corporate social responsibility means has not proved so simple.

There are myriad definitions of corporate social responsibility, with analysts seemingly divided on whether it is the ‘Corporate’, the ‘Social’ or the ‘Responsibility’ that demands the most focus. Along with this confusion of meaning comes a host of bold claims that seemingly position corporate social responsibility as the Holy Grail. Little wonder that businesses of every size are both irresistibly attracted to corporate social responsibility but also somewhat daunted by the prospect of meeting such grand expectations.

Handshake_Green_Commi_Carouselt_iSIt is up to companies then to define for themselves what those expectations should be. As a company, Pitney Bowes has decided to use the term corporate responsibility, extending the concept to caring for the environment and seeing to the proper disposal and recycling of equipment and consumables. It means taking on responsibilities beyond the ‘social’ and committing to having a positive impact on the physical state of the community as well.

It is important to remember that there are no hard and fast rules for corporate responsibility programmes although there are general guidelines emerging such as those from the Global Reporting Initiative, an independent institution that provides a framework for tracking social and environmental activities. Still, there is no precise definition of what a corporate responsibility programme should encompass, but there are definite pitfalls to avoid.

Commitment and Budget

Certainly, there is little point in a corporate responsibility programme for the sake of it. Arguably, businesses that take up a corporate responsibility initiative in a bid to appear forward-thinking and progressive, only to then withdraw once the spotlight moves to the next business trend, will do themselves more harm than good.  Any corporate responsibility policy must represent a long-term commitment – which takes planning, staff commitment and budget.

Equally, businesses should avoid over-committing and making promises that simply aren’t realistic or affordable. Businesses are not charities and there should be no shame in being overt about the commercial advantages that a strong corporate responsibility programme can deliver

When looking at our own programme, a major consideration was that much of the activity should relate back to our core business. We run an annual auction event called ‘Pushing the Envelope’ to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust (NLT). We got involved with the NLT five years ago because, as a company, Pitney Bowes is all about improving communications for our customers. The National Literacy Trust (NLT) is driving to improve standards of literacy across all age groups – and improved literacy obviously means improved communication.

The ‘Pushing the Envelope’ event relates back to our core business activity because we ask celebrities and artists to design envelopes. The fact that these designs are on envelopes makes the event stand out, but also references our core strength of mail and messaging technology.

On the environmental side, Pitney Bowes takes back equipment and either disposes of it responsibly – recycling parts and recovering precious metals – or refurbishes it to sell in other markets. The company is committed to protecting the environment and is an accredited ISO 14001 company.

A Differentiator?

There is clear evidence that customers are beginning to expect the businesses they deal with to be corporate responsibility advocates – taking on social responsibilities and meeting green standards. In the consumer market, businesses are dedicating significant budget to declaring their corporate responsibility colours.

In the business to business arena, corporate responsibility is by no means yet a critical influencer. But, in a competitive market, corporate responsibility can represent a differentiator from competitors and an area of common ground with clients in initial new business discussions.

Equally, corporate responsibility can be important for improving a company’s standing in its own community – which in turn can aid the recruitment process. Similarly, existing employees like to feel part of a company that is seen to be responsible and ‘giving back’ to the wider community.

Of course, as with any new business strategy, corporate responsibility has its detractors. Critics argue that corporate responsibility distracts from the fundamental economic role of businesses while others argue that it is nothing more than superficial window-dressing.

Certainly, our own involvement with the National Literacy Trust has been well received by both staff and customers. But more than this – and a point that’s often overlooked – it’s been enormous fun!  Pitney Bowes has been able to align its brand to such stellar names as Damien Hirst, Sir Ian McKellan, Kate Winslet and hundreds of others, whilst raising much valued funds for an extremely deserving cause.

The message is – don’t simply adopt corporate responsibility for the sake of it. Think long-term, find relationships that make sense for your brand and be creative. Big businesses can often be accused of a myopic, navel-gazing approach but sensible corporate responsibility partnerships suggest a company that is more aware of its wider role.

Corporate responsibility champions argue that there is a strong business case in that corporations benefit in multiple ways by operating with a perspective broader and longer than their own immediate, short-term profits. Whatever one’s personal opinion there is little doubt that corporate responsibility is no flash-in-the-pan and that, increasingly, consumers and organisations are looking to do business with companies that display this broader perspective.

Patrick Jelly is Managing Director of Pitney Bowes UK.