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Thoughts on CSR as means to an end, by Joanne Lee

This year’s International Singapore Compact CSR Summit in Singapore summit brought together a whole spectrum of people across industries and government which resulted in various lively panels that sought to address issues such as corporate governance, climate change, measurement and disclosure.

As a research student, I found the CSR summit was a great way for me to learn about the industry’s sentiments and the overall state of CSR in Singapore. During the lunch and tea breaks, speaking to people from various organizations also gave me an insight into the almost never- heard- about-organizations ? those at the start of the journey.

I met some people who were present mostly because their organization failed to win a CSR-related award. Hence, they wanted to hear the success stories to identify the missing link between their organization and the prize.

In my opinion, it does not matter what motivates a company to be responsible - an award, better reputation, or the lofty goal of long-term sustainability.

What matters is that you are socially responsible and you do not make profits at the expense of the people or the environment around you. If a prize is what it takes to inspire companies to go on this journey then that is great because the cost of the award is much less than the effort and resources needed to push a company towards sustainability. Furthermore, there are intangible benefits that a society reaps as businesses become more conscious about their operations and its impact.

Of course, another question should be raised at this point. What if organizations engage in CSR activities just to clinch an award or to better their reputation? Will CSR boil down to just another publicity gimmick?

I have chosen to look at it this way: If an organization communicates its CSR, then it better be doing it and be doing it well. I like to think we are just going about it the reverse way but achieving the
same effect.

During the question and answer sessions, several of the questions revolved around the government’s or regulator’s role in mandating CSR. To that, one speaker, Mr Juan de la Mota, Board Member of the UN Global Compact and President, UN Global Compact Spanish Network, nicely summed it up with his observation that governments are often a few steps behind businesses.

What this means for us here in Singapore is probably that we will have to leverage on the organizations who are already actively engaging in CSR to help move our society towards greater sustainability.

The CSR summit with its strong corporate attendance and sponsorship, as well as the second book
published by the Singapore Compact which showcases 10 more organizations on their CSR journey
seems to be an encouraging sign of businesses already taking up this leadership role.

Joanne Lee is a masters student at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, who is writing a thesis on CSR in Singapore.

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