the Celtic Tiger is now coming of ageNovember 2007
The first ever ‘corporate responsibility week’ took place in Ireland last month. EP looks at the state of CSR in a country that has seen huge social change over the past 15 years
What was Corporate Responsibility Week?
Organized by Business in the Community Ireland from 15–19 October, the purpose of the week was to raise awareness among companies and the public. Various events, including an informal meeting between companies and the Irish environment minister, highlighted aspects of socially responsible business behaviour.
So what is the state of Irish CSR?
Awareness is growing steadily,
but from a low base. PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin has gone so far as to say that ‘among our clients we see many companies struggle with the real significance of CSR’. So while things are moving rapidly, there is some way to go.
Which companies are most active?
Multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Diageo, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, O2 and Vodafone – partly because home grown companies are smaller and so less likely to have dedicated departments. Allied Irish Bank Group (AIB), which has operations in several other countries, including Poland and the US, has a board-level committee and a wide-ranging environment policy. Musgrave, the country’s largest grocery business, is known for its long-held commitment to social reporting and the environment, and recently won the main award in the field, presented by Chambers Ireland, the largest business organization. Other winners were Bank of Ireland, the national broadcaster RTE, and Lagan Cement.
What are the main drivers?
As the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy has moved from an agricultural base into service, manufacturing and technology, the reputational and other business benefits have become more widely recognized. There has been little pressure from the small national NGO community (apart from the odd exception, such as Trocaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has targeted toy retailers), but there is growing interest from Irish investors, and from the lively media. Alan Tyrrell, a senior executive at Hibernian Insurance, who carried out a survey of business responsibility measures in Ireland earlier this year, points to the power of new money. Many consumers are educated to university level and ‘can afford to think about ethical things now they have more money in their hands’.
What has the government done?
It has yet to embrace the CSR agenda in the way that, say, the French and UK governments have done – and has put forward no related regulations, not even on disclosure. However, the government does fund cross-sector partnerships between civil society and business. Through the Linkage Programme, in which the Irish Probation Service is closely involved, companies have brought more than 600 ex-offenders back into the workforce. Also involved is Business in the Community Ireland, the strongest national not-for-profit organization. Formed in 2000, Bitc Ireland now has 50 large companies in membership, 52 staff and an annual budget of €2.5million ($3.48 m, £1.74m).
What about reporting?
There are 38 large companies reporting on social and environmental issues in some form. But reporting lacks the profile it has in other countries, not least because the economy is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises. Even the bigger companies often fit non-financial reporting statements into a few pages in the annual report. ‘In general there’s just not a big demand for reporting over here,’ says Jacqui McCrum, AIB Group’s head of CSR.
What distinguishes the Irish approach?
Community involvement and support for overseas charitable projects are popular, partly, Tyrrell says, ‘because of the history of Ireland, with its large-scale emigration’. A recent Dublin Institute of Technology study of 13 companies found they favoured pro bono work, work/life balance initiatives, charitable donations and support for scholarship programmes. Ethical supply chain management is noticeable by its absence – partly, say some observers, because many Irish companies have supply chains that end at the country’s borders, or buy from brokers. One issue that has become more prominent is diversity. A recent influx of immigrants from the enlarged European Union is prompting businesses to look afresh at their relations with customers and employees who are non-Irish nationals.
What about the future?
Tina Roche, chief executive of Bitc Ireland, argues that in a country with a population of four million, the business responsibility message doesn’t have to spread too far to have an impact. ‘If we were to reach 100 of the major companies in the country then we could probably affect 60 per cent of the workforce,’ she says.
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