CSR still matters in the downturn

22 July 2009

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas: Major companies including Wal-Mart, the retail giant, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, the consumer packaged goods manufacturers, are continuing to focus on issues relating to corporate social responsibility despite the onset of the downturn.

It has been argued that CSR initiatives can be vital for brands' seeking to survive the recession, provided they are genuine, and not seen as mere "green-speak" by consumers.

Recently, Wal-Mart outlined its plans to implement a new labelling system for products sold in its stores, with manufacturers being required to disclose the environmental "cost" of making their brands.

It will use a ratings system to inform consumers about this data, as part of the company's broader effort to reduce its energy consumption and waste, and to sell more sustainable products.

Speaking at the launch of this scheme, Mike Duke, Wal-Mart's chairman/ceo, said "this is not a US standard. Across the world, this standard would work across all retailers, all suppliers."

"Wal-Mart is providing the initial funding for this, but we do want other companies to participate. Our goal is not to create our own index, but to spur development of a common database," he added.

Santiago Gowland, vp of brand development and global corporate responsibility at Unilever, said the Anglo-Dutch company is "intent on examining the relationship between a brand and society, not just the psychological aspirations of consumers."

To this end, it developed a "brand imprint" model in 2005, which "enables brands to integrate social, economic and environmental drivers into their development plans."

As a result, the FMCG firm now acquires all of its tea from sustainable sources, while Ben & Jerry's, its ice cream property, will spend €2.4m ($3.4m; £2.1m) over the five-year period to 2012 to ensure its production process is "climate neutral."

Building on this work, Unilever established a Vitality Framework last year to help it measure the success of its various sustainability platforms.

This depicts brands as "societal change agents", responsible for improving consumers' health and well-being while simultaneously reducing their environmental impact and using resources in a more eco-friendly way.

In 2007, Procter & Gamble also announced its intention to spend $20 billion on "sustainable innovation products", including cutting its consumption of materials and energy, as well as packaging and waste generation, by at least 10%.

Its recent activities in this area have featured the "Turn to 30" campaign for its Ariel washing powder brand in the UK, and a similar positioning for its Tide Cold Water washing detergent in the US.

Peter White, P&G's director for global sustainability, said "we want to help shape the future - now and for generations to come - by collaborating with local, regional and global stakeholders."

"By working together through multi-stakeholder initiatives we firmly believe we can make a bigger difference together than we can individually," he added.

Data sourced from Environmental Leader/Wall Street Journal; additional content by WARC staff