Sunday, November 1, 2009

The state of CSR in Canada

In our last post we commented on the No.1 position claimed by the Schulich School of Business in Toronto in the Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking of business schools – a global survey which assesses the performance of schools in integrating responsible business into MBA curricula and research. Overall, Canadian business schools did well in the ranking with several schools making the top 50 – McGill (31st), Concordia (34th), and the University of British Columbia (49th).

But though Canadian business schools are starting to punch above their weight in the world of responsible business education, the performance of the country’s corporate sector in responsible business practice remains in question. For example, you’d be hard pressed to find any Canadian companies in the top 50 of Corporate Responsibility Officer’s Best Corporate Citizens of 2009. Still, rankings like this don’t tell you everything. So we thought we’d take the pulse of responsible business in Canada by checking out a couple of practitioner conferences taking place in downtown Toronto this last week. Clearly it is full-on conference season in Canada’s responsible business community with 3 major gatherings happening in 2 weeks – the first two of which we dipped into to test the waters.

First up was the ‘In Good Company’ CSR Conference organized by the Orenda consulting firm that took place on Tuesday 27th October 2009. This was a first-time outing for Orenda on the CSR conference circuit, and it was interesting to see the differences with some of the more mainstream conferences. We didn’t stay for the whole event but it was notable just how much the CSR agenda here was dominated by corporate community investment (CI) issues. This no doubt reflected to some extent the particular orientation of the consultancy running the show, but still, it was something of a surprise for a gig billed as a ‘CSR conference’. As Peggie Pelosi, the CEO of Orenda told us, the event was mainly aimed at engaging SMEs – and issues like CI are where most of them are with respects to CSR.

That said, the level of expertise demonstrated by the speakers on CI was pretty impressive. Clearly the leaders in Canada have been quick on the uptake in terms of developing well-managed CI programs with plenty of measurable impacts and meaningful metrics, good attention to employee involvement, and a genuine desire to both make a positive social contribution and generate greater meaning for employees. All good stuff, even with what looks like relatively limited resources compared to some of their overseas counterparts.

Strikingly missing from much of the debate however was a genuinely strategic approach to CI where firms focus their attention not just on doing good, but on leveraging their own competencies, and focusing on social problems within their own value chain or ‘sphere of influence’. Given we are in the middle of a financial crisis, and an energy situation that is rapidly heating the planet, it was somewhat disconcerting to hear a finance company talking about investments in homework clubs, tree planting and affordable home-building, whilst an energy firm regaled us with stories of their success in supporting food banks. All very laudable, and all very successful, but haven’t they got more pressing business-critical social issues they should be concentrating on? Aren’t food banks just a bit of a distraction when we’ve got climate change to solve? To be honest it was quite a relief when the Director of Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft got up and starting talking about investments in technology projects. Here was clearly a company that demonstrated that it got CSR in a deeper way.

And so it was onto the Conference Board of Canada event ‘Creating Business Value with Integrated Sustainability’ two days later. Unsurprisingly a somewhat more suited-up corporate event, but again one where, with one or two notable exceptions, the real leaders seemed to be, like Microsoft Canada over at the Orenda event, the Canadian subsidiaries of US corporations who had picked up their best tricks from over the border …. or even back in Europe. Companies like the American carpet manufacturer Interface, or even IBM, appear to be leading the pack here. And it's regulation from Europe that appears to be driving attention to environmental issues - though whether catching up with Europe's regulatory requirements is really a 'proactive' strategy, as one presenter claimed, is a moot point.

Funny how Canada manages to maintain a reputation for being all socially responsible and environmentally friendly, when corporate Canada actually seems to be dragging its feet somewhat in developing a progressive approach to responsible business. Obviously we didn’t hear everything said at either event. But from what we could gather from our admittedly brief forays into both of them, the debate here seems little more than a warmed up version of what we were hearing in the UK and other places years ago.

This is not to say there are not some impressive movers and shakers in the corporate CSR world here – but whole sectors of the economy don’t appear to have quite got it yet. The Conference Board organizers had put together a good program, but in oil and minerals rich Canada where were the energy and mining companies with something to say about ‘creating business value with integrated sustainability’? Holed up in the tar sands no doubt. Still, it was good to see consumer products companies at least starting to think seriously about green innovation issues.

So what can we conclude from our conference crawl this week? Well, let’s just say that Canada still has plenty of untapped potential when it comes to responsible business. As Peggie Pelosi acknowledged, Canadian companies are doing a pretty good job on community investment initiatives but are still well behind their overseas counterparts in sustainability and other key areas of CSR practice. As glass-half-full kind of guys, we’d like to think this means that Canada has a real opportunity to leapfrog the US, the UK and others. But we won’t be holding our breath….

Green Canada flag copyright Realc. Reproduced under Creative Commons license

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick response to your comment on the apparent absence of the energy and mining sectors - the attention of oil and gas and mining companies these days is probably largely focused on the other dialogue happening now pertaining to CSR for Canadian extractives operating abroad. This dialogue includes the ongoing consultative process led by the government in relation to their CSR Strategy ("Building the Canadian Advantage"), and specifically the establishment of the Office of the CSR Counsellor, as well as other conferences and events, for example that hosted earlier this week by the Halifax Initiative in Gatineau.

    In addition, the extractive sector has their eye on the ball that is the proposed Bill C300, An Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries, as it wends its way through Committee review and potentially third reading before Christmas.

    This might explain the apparent underrepresentation of those sectors at the CSR conferences in Toronto. An additional factor, of course, are the cut budgets of countless departments in the face of current economic conditions. In this respect, I'd rather see companies keep spending on the 'doing' rather than the 'talking' (which is not to say that communication, information sharing, and collaboration aren't meritorious activities).


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