The new face of Sustainability

CSR movement starts looking beyond traditional rural focus to meet pressing needs of urban people for better opportunities and livesCSR is not about money. Money is just one factor. CSR is about sustainability and engagement

From badminton to beauty, bras and B-Boy, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is closer to more people's lives than many of us might think.

For those who are unfamiliar with the practice, CSR tends to be thought of as something that takes place only in rural areas or focuses exclusively on the needy. People might have a mental picture of one company presenting scholarships to poor students in remote schools, or another planting trees to put some green back into the location where it does business.

The reality on the ground, however, is that CSR knows no geographical boundaries and income barriers. It can be everywhere, including urban areas and in various forms, sometimes beyond our imagination.

The need to create more chances for better job opportunities, remedy unequal distribution of wealth and the imbalances in economic growth all play a part in forcing businesses to change their approach to social responsibility. Those economic factors continue to draw people to leave their hometowns upcountry for cities, including Bangkok, and make them bigger. According to the United Nations, the world's urban population grew steadily from 3 billion in 2005 to 3.5 billion in 2010. It projects 4 billion people will live in cities by 2015.

Bangkok is no exception to the trend. The City of Angels officially had 5.7 million people last year, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. That figures looks manageable but as everyone knows, it doesn't take into account the additional 5 million people living in the capital but with household registrations elsewhere.

The growing urban environment naturally means more problems. And that's where CSR comes into play, either from businesses or state agencies in the form of public service.

``Whatever form CSR takes and wherever it is undertaken, its key word is sustainability,'' said Pipat Yodprudtikan, director of the Thaipat Institute, one of the frontline non-profit agencies promoting the concept.

CSR and sustainable development are inseparable regardless of wherever and whenever the concept is applied.

The CSR movement started as a response to concern about global resources that were depleting at an alarmingly accelerated rate. Economists, environmentalists, academics and laymen all began questioning the long-term danger facing the world where we lived unless businesses stopped racking up profits without any consideration for what they were leaving to society. The idea picked up momentum and eventually was adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

Companies aware of the problem agreed but not all of them seriously turned worries into deeds. Among the global leaders unhappy with the slow pace of companies showing responsibility for their surroundings was Kofi Anan. The UN secretary-general at the time called for better and more responsible behaviour from all businesses as a matter of ``good global citizenship''.

His voice was heard and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development took the call seriously. It issued guidelines for multinational enterprises a year later and business leaders announced the Global Corporate Citizenship Initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2002. It required CSR to be part of their missions.

Since then CSR has become a buzzword for firms everywhere from New York to London, Paris, Tokyo and Bangkok. Locally, companies listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand are encouraged to present Sustainable Development reports, just as they would a profit-and-loss statement, as part of their commitment to return something to society, although the paper is not compulsory.

It looks easy for any company to begin a CSR project in a rural area where everything is needed, from better schooling to living conditions and infrastructure. But urbanites in many towns or cities are not necessarily better off than their rural peers. Some face a lack of educational opportunities similar to the problems in the countryside. Other challenges unique to urban settings include noise pollution, congested living spaces and no clean public drinking water.

``All result from the unwise use of resources in cities.That is the main component that urban CSR has to take into account,'' Mr Pipat noted. ``The use of resources must be reduced. They have to be reused and recycled,''

The projects featured in this Bangkok Post supplement are just a few examples of what private businesses and state agencies can do to show their social responsibility in the areas where they are based. There are many more that have different focuses out there.

CSR for urban people can be on a small scale or even a grand scale like the Anti-Corruption Network initiated by Dusit Nontanakorn, the late chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. The network he spearheaded reflected a common worry that endemic corruption was hurting the country and preventing it from reaching its potential, according to Mr Pipat.

``Many did not realise that this was an urban CSR project,'' he said.

Executing a CSR project in urban areas is not easy. The campaign against corruption was able to bring together leaders from various sectors to drive it forward. Other projects might struggle to get going because in urban society people prefer keeping to themselves to engaging with their neighbours. Also, there needs to be clear screening to make sure that there is a common problem that needs to be addressed to serve people's needs.

``The point is that any agency that is doing it must understand who is the stakeholder,'' Mr Pipat said. ``The project must have an impact and the agency has to be clear on what the output will be.''

One misunderstanding about CSR, regardless of where the project is undertaken, is that it cannot be driven without money. No one denies that it is important but in reality cash is not everything.

``CSR is not about money. Money is just one factor,'' Mr Pipat explained. ``CSR is about sustainability and engagement.''

As more rural areas turn into towns and towns become bigger and turn into cities, urban CSR is destined to take on more and more importance. It is a duty not only for private businesses but also state agencies and civic groups to devote more attention to this changing environment, he concluded.

About the author

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Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
Position: Digital Media News Editor