Listen to this article
For some companies, corporate social responsibility is about addressing the social problems linked to their own industry.
Heineken is one group that is tackling head-on the negative effects of its products. As reported by the Financial Times in April, the brewer is funding projects run by Addaction to support alcoholics, and is encouraging its employees to volunteer for the charity. It discontinued its White Lightning and Strongbow Black high-strength ciders after senior managers saw the products being abused while visiting an Addaction centre.
Other industries are learning from this approach, says Richard Koch, head of policy for the UK Cards Association, which represents credit card providers. “A bit like the alcohol industry, we know some people won’t be able to manage the product we’ve offered them,” he says, “but [at the point of sale] we don’t know who those people are.”
Credit card providers hold regular discussion forums with debt charities. Sector-wide approaches have been introduced offering “breathing space” and interest freezes to customers struggling with debt problems.
The sector also supports charities helping those affected by its products. Nationwide, for instance, has given grants through its foundation to Money Advice Plus Services, and offers free advice and advocacy to people struggling with debts through a partnership with IncomeMAX, a community interest company.
Participants in the social media industry are taking note of their responsibilities to stop bullying and abuse by users. Facebook has set up an online bullying prevention centre and has hosted events with the Diana Award, a charity working with young people that runs an anti-bullying programme.
Twitter has “refined” its safety policies after discussions with experts.
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Family Lives, a charity that supports victims of cyber-bullying, would like social media groups to follow the approach taken by other industries, and use their CSR programmes to fund projects. “Efforts to counter the impact of cyber-bullying are being resourced by the charitable sector, not by companies’ profits, ” he says.
In the fast-food industry, attempts to tackle obesity have focused on prevention rather than cure. Manufacturers are reformulating products, offering nutritional advice to consumers, changing their marketing and promoting healthy lifestyles.
Judith Schrempf-Stirling, assistant professor of management at the University of Richmond, Virginia, wrote in a paper published by the journal Business & Society last year that the industry “could use its gains from obesity by investing them into [medical] treatments” for obese people.
But Rocco Renaldi, secretary-general of the International Food and Beverage Alliance, says this might not be the most effective use of resources.
“I would argue that the public health impact of reformulation and portion-size control is much larger,” he says. “Community interventions are way down the list.”
Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at Oxford university, agrees. “[Companies] need to focus on the things that are their direct responsibility that it’s hard for the rest of us to make a difference to.
“Most people can’t change the composition of a hamburger, but manufacturers can.”