Can big businesses be social enterprises too?

The business case for companies to be more socially responsible has been proven, but what comes next? Speakers and panellists brainstormed at this year's CSR and Social Innovators Forum in Singapore.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability are no longer issues relegated to a company’s CSR department; and firms that fail to adopt sustainable practices are not only making a poor ethical decision but also a lousy business choice. 

This was the consensus among CSR and sustainability experts at the CSR and Social Innovators Forum, held in the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre earlier this month. 

The forum, jointly organised for the first time by Global Compact Network Singapore and Singapore Innovation Park (SIP), gathered some 350 delegates from sectors such as investment, real estate, academia, manufacturing, and social enterprise, to discuss ways to transform the economy such that social objectives matter as much as financial gains.

The theme, “Co-creating the future economy through sustainability and social innovation”, reflects how the spotlight has shifted globally towards corporations and their social and environmental impacts in recent years. 

Speakers including Georg Kell, founding director of the United Nations Global Compact, and Richard Welford, chairman of sustainability consultancy CSR Asia, pointed out that the case for integrating sustainability into business operations has been proven in up to 300 academic articles highlighting the link between a company’s bottom line and sustainability.  

Panellists also emphasised that CSR is no longer solely about philanthropy or donations. Aramex International Logistics’ chief sustainability and compliance officer, Raji Hattar, said: “It’s about the core competency of the company, what you can present to the community, and start creating value out of.”

Rather than donating cash, Aramex helps start-ups grow by offering discounts on shipping and therefore, access to the wider markets. 

All companies, big or small, should be treating sustainability as a competitive advantage, said Eco-Business editor Jessica Cheam, who spoke at the second plenary of the forum.

“MNCs do have more resources, but SMEs need to see it as a competitive advantage and apply best practices… this will lead to efficiencies, cost-savings, and improved reputations,” she noted. 

By incorporating social objectives into their operations, companies can kickstart a positive cycle simply by using what skills and resources they already have, said speakers.

CSR Asia’s Welford said that if companies want to become more responsiblethey should think about having a clear social purpose and identify social needs that they can meet through their assets and expertise.

“This is an infectious argument,” said Welford. “If I can meet social needs in a way that makes profits, then those profits becomes magical because that encourages me to meet more social needs.”

Panellists also observed that external factors such as government regulations or shareholders pushing for more sustainable practices are compelling reasons for companies to get moving. 

To keep firms accountable, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) made sustainability reporting mandatory for all Singapore-listed companies as of June this year.

Yeo Lian Sim, SGX’s senior advisor, said that investors have a “part to play in telling companies what they’d like to see and what’s important to them”, adding that early adopters of reporting have already seen efficiency gains.

One such early adopter is property developer City Developments Limited, whose chief sustainability officer Esther An said that the combination of commitment from management in early days, and later on, investors expecting a good environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance which indicates a good level of social responsibility, continues to drive the company’s push for sustainability.

Also attending the forum, Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, shared that the Singapore government grants tax relief on products and services for companies willing to invest in CSR, with the objective of having them “embrace social objectives, not just donations but to get skillsets involved”. 

If I can meet social needs in a way that makes profits, then those profits becomes magical because that encourages me to meet more social needs.

Richard Welford, chairman, CSR Asia

Why big businesses

The role of social enterprises and how businesses can team up with them to achieve positive social impact also came up in the discussion. 

Aramex’s Hattar pointed out that often, the conversation revolves around how companies can get involved in CSR projects, but it takes two hands to clap.

Addressing non-government organisations (NGOs), he said: “Don’t just treat companies like ATMs”, adding that the private sector has more resources for NGOs to tap than just cash. Poor economic conditions today could also make businesses more reluctant to make financial donations. 

“If NGOs come to me and say, ‘We need a hundred thousand dollars’, I will think about the request about 20 times,” said Hattar. 

“But if they come to me and say, ‘We need your finance team to help us build our accounting system’, or the IT team to build the IT system, that would be way easier (for me to agree),” he added.

Fellow panellist, CSR Asia’s Welford, said that big corporations have a specific ability that social enterprises cannot replicate. 

“There’s a role for social enterprises and SMEs, but it’s the big corporations of the world that need to take on the big challenges (in social issues),” Welford said, explaining that social enterprises perform well on a niche level but tend not to scale.

“What the private sector does really well is scaling up, and when dealing with the world’s biggest issues, we need to do it at scale,” he added. 

The two-day programme saw the launch of the SIP Empower for Good Programme, which offers training, mentorship and workplace exposure to Institute of Technical Education students studying information and communications technology and engineering.

The CDL-Compact Singapore Young CSR Leaders Award ceremony also took place during the forum, recognising the teams with the best and most feasible CSR strategy for new business cases from multinational and large organisations such as Hilton Worldwide, NatSteel Holdings, and DNV GL. 

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