Covid-19: Year dot for CSR

The way in which businesses respond to the crisis will provide a baseline against which all future claims of corporate responsibility will be judged, argues Nick Hughes.

Corporate social responsibility has always been a difficult discipline to assess.

Almost every large business will present to the world a contract it claims to hold with society as a way of counterbalancing its profit-making activities. But deciphering the extent to which the smorgasbord of values, principles and policies is genuine, or merely an attempt to varnish the company’s public image with a sheen of morality, can be a fiendishly difficult task.

Even for seasoned journalists, campaigners and academics, separating the good guys from the grifters often boils down to a mixture of experience and intuition rather than hard maths (I find an equation of ‘detail + transparency = responsibility’ is usually a good place to start).

In recent years, certification schemes that claim to do the heavy lifting on the public’s behalf have proliferated. Yet questions remain over the integrity and rigour of these schemes, many of whose business models rely on revenue derived from the companies they claim to police.

The burgeoning B-Corp certification, which independently assesses a company’s performance against a range of social and environmental indicators, has proven attractive to start-ups. But as it gains wider public recognition, the risk of appropriation by corporate giants keen to shape the scheme to benefit their own agendas will only increase.

With Covid-19, however, we have an unfolding national emergency (and tragedy) that looks set to bring new clarity to the task of judging businesses against their claims of social purpose.

If a person’s true personality is revealed in times of crisis then the same can be said of a business. The catastrophic impact of the coronavirus on the corporate landscape has left bosses facing some stark choices. Do they retain staff, potentially at significant cost, or cast them adrift? Do they pay their suppliers promptly or send them to the wall? Do they play their part in the national effort or retreat behind corporate barricades?

The answers are already emerging. Gratifyingly, the majority of businesses are proving that the values they claim to espouse are indeed baked into the organisation (or at the very least they are savvy enough to know that now is not the time to put the short-term needs of shareholders first).

For others, however, the mask has slipped. Some, undoubtedly, will have taken the view that consumers have short memories – that mud slung on Twitter and graffiti daubed on the walls of pubs will not translate into boycotts and lost custom when we finally emerge from this crisis.

They may be right. But there’s a chance that on this occasion they have misjudged the public mood. Rapid U-turns by the likes of Wetherspoons and Sports Direct on callous policies suggest even the country’s most pig-headed business leaders recognise this already.

Some people may well forgive and forget. Others, however, are already compiling lists of the heroes and villains in their determination to remind their fellow citizens that – when the need for national unity was greatest – some businesses stood up for their staff, suppliers and communities, while others took the path of narrow self-interest.

This unfolding crisis is unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. After the immediate trauma has eased, the after-effects – both economic and social – will be felt keenly for years to come.

Covid-19 represents the year dot for CSR – a baseline against which all future proclamations will be judged and either believed or dismissed as PR-driven garbage. Some comparisons between Covid-19 and wartime Britain are misjudged or irrelevant, but others have more than a grain of truth. Five, ten, or even twenty years from now, actions taken in the springtime months of 2020 will become the corporate equivalent of the famous World War I poster: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”

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