INDIACSR News Network
MUMBAI: Elaine Cohen is the founding partner & joint CEO of Beyond Business Ltd, a global CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm, and the author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices (Greenleaf, 2010), the first book covering Human Resources Management aspects of embedding sustainability. Elaine lectures widely corporate sustainability and reporting and on Sustainable HRM, including delivering a 12-hour MBA course on this subject at Steinbeis University (Berlin). Elaine writes in a range of print and online publications and maintains three blogs related to sustainability. Elaine was voted one of the 100 Top Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business practices in Europe and the Middle East in 2011. Elaine has over 25 years of business experience, with global, local, and small private businesses, and extensive experience in the non-profit sector.
In an exclusive interview with Harsha Mukherjee, Editor of INDIACSR, Elaine Cohen shared her views on CSR and Sustainability. She talked about CSR, Global Reporting Initiative, recent trend in CSR particularly in Israel and Middle East, Transparency Index, CSR as profession, Supply Chan Integrity and business plan of her company.
Below is the transcript of the interview:
Welcome to INDIA CSR, Could you please introduce yourself and your involvement in Beyond Business?
Thank you. It is a pleasure to connect with INDIA CSR. My company, Beyond Business Ltd, specializes in supporting companies in the development of CSR (or Sustainability) strategy, implementing processes and developing communications, especially Sustainability Reports. We work with companies in Europe, the U.S. and in the Middle East. My personal background is in business – both in Supply Chain Management (with Procter and Gamble in Europe) and Unilever (as VP for Human Resources in Israel). I have been an independent CSR Consultant and Sustainability Reporter for the past 7 years and love my work! I write widely and am the author of the first-ever book for Human Resources professionals (CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices, Greenleaf, 2010) and I write three blogs, the main one being a very widely-read blog on CSR Reporting (www.csr-reporting.blogspot.
Please enlighten more about Beyond Business and its services?
Beyond the consulting aspects of our work, one of the most visible outputs are the Sustainability Reports that we have supported our clients in delivering. These range from companies in the animal feed business (Novus International), to Electronic Defence Systems (Elbit Systems), Engineering and Construction (Baran Group) and online gaming (888 Holdings). We are Organizational Stakeholders of the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) and know this framework very well. Also, we support the United Nations Global Compact and have assisted several companies to engage with this initiative and we have written their reports which summarize their performance against the Global Compact principles. These include companies in the ITC sector (ECI Telecom, Ness Technologies), pharmaceutical sector (Teva Pharmaceuticals) and many more. We also prepare benchmarks for clients, to show them how they are positioned in their sector or country versus global standards.
One not-for-profit venture we have developed is the Transparency Index, which monitors the transparency levels of leading companies through their corporate websites. We started doing this annually in Israel from 2009 and the Index is now poised to go global, as we have developed a partnership with the Centre for Development in the Ukraine. So far, as part of the global Index, we have analyzed Israel, UK, Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, Denmark, Sweden, U.S. and we will soon publish our index for India. It is quite interesting to see the different levels of transparency in different markets and also sectors.
How will you define the Corporate Social Responsibility?
CSR is a way of doing business which is designed to deliver long-term business success while making a positive contribution to society and the sustainability of the planet.
What difference do you view at CSR practiced in the developed market and emerging market?
In developed markets, CSR is now tending to be seen as an opportunity to gain new business by opening up new business and identifying new ways of developing products which meet the needs of society in a sustainable way. Companies are looking more broadly at global issues and developing partnerships within and across sectors. In emerging economies, CSR tends to be more about compliance, immediate cost-benefit and philanthropy.
Best case example of how have a MNC and a domestic company integrated CSR in their strategy and maximized profits?
One of my favorite examples from an MNC is Vodafone and their M-PESA initiative.
The use of mobile phone technology is transforming the ability of people in emerging economy markets to gain access to information, banking services and other things necessary for individuals to become self-sustaining. This was a clear opportunity to expand Vodafone’s business while serving a real needs in society. There are several other examples from many different companies.
For a local company, I could suggest my client, an SME fashion business. A couple of years ago, the company, comme-il-faut, (www.comme-il-faut.com) made a campaign inviting clients to bring in unwanted garments in return for a discount on a future purchase. The garments were sold by an NGO to pay for courses for women entrepreneurs. The campaign was very successful and resulted in not only a large number of valuable garments being received for the benefit of society, but the highest sales month ever for the company.
Your take on CSR in Israel and Middle East?
There are some very interesting initiatives in the Middle East in the UAE, Jordan and other parts of the region. I get a sense that there is a momentum which is building, not least due to the efforts of other professionals such as Maria Sillanpaa in Dubai, Bushra Azhar in KSA and Mali Quasem of Schema in Jordan. In Israel, the market is rather sluggish and despite the relatively advanced economy and the existence of a national Social Responsibility Index, genuine uptake of CSR principles is still slow and way behind counterparts in Europe and the U.S. The focus tends to be on ethics, community involvement and environmental initiatives.
Do CSR professionals need special training, if yes what?
Yes, I believe CSR Professionals (in corporations) need a strong grounding in several aspects of CSR and sustainability. But, first of all, they need to understand business. I think the best CSR Professionals are the ones who have had enough hands-on experience of management to know how businesses works, the language of profit and growth, the way organizations function and how business interacts with society. This is almost at the level of “license to operate” for a CSR Professional. CSR after all is a way of doing business. It is impossible to drive change without understanding current characteristics of the way business is done and why, and how people interact in organizations. Beyond this, CSR Professionals need to understand social and environmental realities, they need to understand how to identify a company’s impacts on stakeholders and they need to be familiar with a range of tools and processes required for optimum CSR performance. Some of this can undoubtedly be learnt “on the job”, but training in the form of academic programs or dedicated training courses can be an invaluable first step.
How sustainable is CSR profession?
There are many views on this. Some say that sustainability is not a profession and that it should be part of everyone’s job. Others say that the sustainability profession is crucial in order to set strategy and maintain focus. Personally, I am in the latter camp. I believe sustainability is a profession which needs to provide leadership in the business, even though every other manager and employee shares responsibility for implementation. Personally, I don’t see too many companies being able to integrate sustainability well enough at a level which will enable them to succeed without a focused, dedicated professional leading the function. Therefore, I believe, it’s pretty sustainable!
What are the hardships you face while convincing the clients?
The usual ones. We have no time, we have no budget, our business is growing anyway, no-one is demanding it from us, there is no law about it etc.
It is important not to make false promises and “sell” CSR as a solution to everyone’s problems. However, carefully pointing out the risks as well as the benefits and opportunities can help change people’s minds. But, not everyone wants to be convinced, so you don’t win everyone over.
Did you like your visit in India and how do you feel about winning the World HRD Strategic Leadership award?
I loved my visit to India for the World HRD Congress and World CSR Day. I have been several times before and I always love being in India. I was delighted and honored to receive the Award and love the approach of the HRD Congress in recognizing good and original work of many professionals and practitioners. There are not so many opportunities for such recognition and it is, for me, a sign that the message is getting through.
Which industry sector is proactively pursuing CSR?
There is progress in all sectors, but it varies. I find it difficult to say that one single sector is ahead of the game. There are so many aspects of CSR/sustainability and not everyone is good in everything. Looking at some of the recent rankings, companies such as Novo Nordisk, and others in the pharma sector, Unilever, energy companies and finance companies tend to be highly rated. However, there is little consistency across the board and there are leaders and laggards in every sector.
Do you have plans to expand your business in other emerging countries?
I am seeking opportunities to develop the work we do in emerging markets including Eastern Europe and Asia. I believe we can add great value to assist companies in these regions get on board with the concept in the right way for them and exploit the opportunities that sustainable business offers. I would love to develop a client base in India, as I was very impressed by the potential and the interest from people I have met. The Indian economy is growing rapidly, the key will be to turn this into sustainable growth, and to become a true partner in the development of a sustainable global economy. As Indian companies expand beyond India, they will be expected to adopt a sustainability approach.
How do you see the industry developing in the coming 5 years in the emerging countries?
In emerging economies, the focus will be on establishing a high-quality baseline for CSR type activities over the next few years. This means adapting or creating businesses which are low-carbon, energy efficient, compliant with human rights standards, human and product safety and supply chain integrity. These are the main current risks. Some of the leaders will start to develop more holistic approaches and change their business models. As the movement grows, business transparency will be elevated to the status of regulation or stock-exchange listing requirements, so most companies will have to put more robust reporting tools in place. Consumers and NGO’s will become more adept in discerning between sustainable companies and non-sustainable companies and will influence corporate practice more than today. Philanthropy as an act of charity divorced from business needs as we know it today will reduce and we will see more collaborative partnerships across sectors and companies to advance sustainable change.