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Business can be a force for good

18 July 2014

Companies are finding that social responsibility pays dividends, says Paul Vallely

IT IS easy to poke fun at the business community over its preposterous jargon and self-regarding circumlocutions. The other day, I came across the man in charge of sewage for a water company, who rejoiced in the title of Head of Collection Services. At least the euphemism did not put me or my companions off our dinner when his name and title were flashed on a screen.

The dinner in question was at the annual awards of the charity Business in the Community. The event was an eye-opener for anyone who assumes that the 2008 financial crisis must have killed off enthusiasm in the commercial sector for the idea of corporate social responsibility. Not every business strategy is driven by the short-term demands of capital markets and shareholders.

Firm after firm was invited up to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, after an address from the Prince of Wales, to receive awards. What was striking was that so many clearly saw their responsibility to society not as some bolt-on PR extra, but as something integral to their success.

Some of this is dressed-up self-interest. What is good for the environment can also be good for the bottom line. The top award was taken by the National Grid, which has cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 53 per cent since 1990. The best small business, Novus Property Solutions, has diverted 97 per cent of its waste from landfill. Action to reduce packaging, and to cut electricity, water, and fuel use helps the planet. But it also cuts costs.

Yet there is more to it than this. Novus has created jobs for young people and its staff put 8000 hours into volunteering in the community. A school, Okehampton College, has reduced its energy bills to near zero with the help of innovative technologies and EDF Energy. A London law firm, Freshfields, has set up an extraordinary scheme to give employment training to 80 ex-offenders, half of whom have unspent convictions. (The only ex-cons they won't take are those guilty of white-collar fraud.)

On stage, one man spoke movingly of how he had graduated from the scheme to a full-time job at Freshfields, after being turned down for 60 jobs elsewhere, sometimes being escorted off the premises when he revealed his criminal record.

These were the 17th year of the awards. The charity has now presented its Big Ticks - a kind of kite-mark of corporate responsibility - to 159 companies, and 82 other organisations. More than 85 per cent of the companies which make up the FTSE 100 now report on their social responsibility as part of their annual accounts. Intriguingly, many companies which embrace sustainable practices are also registering superior financial performances in comparison with other companies. There is real change abroad. Business can be a force for good in the world.

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