More and more, it’s socially-conscious, progressive businesses that are taking a lead in tackling the big issues. Michele Wietscher, Newview Managing Director, argues that CSR isn’t just a buzzword – it’s something with the potential to help shape a better world.
In the space of just a few decades (no time at all in the grand scheme of things), the balance has shifted dramatically.
The twentieth century was dominated by governments. Yes, thousands of pioneering businesses made an immense social contribution – but all around the world, it was states that were making the big decisions, and tackling the most pressing challenges of the time.
Now, that’s changing fast – and increasingly, it’s progressive businesses who are picking up the slack.
Leading the way on sustainability
On climate change in particular, the onus is now on business to drive sustainability forward.
That’s obviously a major challenge. Governments have huge power, and a top-down overview of entire industries. As individual businesses, we can only really focus on changing our own behaviour, and encouraging others to follow suit.
But in construction, we’re at an extremely promising moment in our history. Sustainable technology is progressing in leaps and bounds, and innovations across the construction sector are helping us cut carbon footprints by reducing waste materials and maximising energy efficiency.
There’s an increasing emphasis on smarter working practices – like modular construction, or MMC, for example.
Individual components, or ‘modules’ of a building are manufactured offsite, then transported to site to be assembled. The modules can be easily combined to create a finished building, like a high-tech Lego set.
As a result, modular building projects can be completed 30-50% quicker than those that use more traditional methods, and modules can be worked on indoors in all weathers.
That means less waste, lower energy usage, lower transportation costs, and lower emissions from vehicles, too.
One of the most valuable contributions a construction business can make, though, is to reduce the single-use plastic in their supply chain – critically important, given the sector accounts for 23% of the UK’s plastic use.
That’s a tough ask. The reason plastic is so widely used is because it’s extremely useful – it’s flexible, cheap, lightweight and water-resistant.
But even something as small as encouraging employees to use reusable drinking cups rather than plastic bottles is a start – and at the other end of the spectrum, some exciting new innovations are giving us a glimpse of what the future could look like.
American companies are experimenting with using mushrooms to create biodegradable plastic alternatives, for example – and in a few years’ time, phasing out plastic entirely might become a much more realistic prospect.
Waste reduction isn’t something that should stop in the factory, the building yard, or on-site, though – thorough workplace assessments can ensure that the waste resulting from your everyday office operations is cut back to a bare minimum too.
Helping the environment and the community
But CSR doesn’t have to just be a dry, logistical process, either.
One sure-fire way to have a positive impact both environmentally and in the community is by encouraging hands-on employee-led schemes – initiatives like tree-planting, rewilding, beekeeping and others.
They’re fun, and they get staff engaged and thinking about sustainability in a wider context, too.
And for an even more rewarding experience for employees, and even greater positive social impact, you can carry out these in conjunction with schools.
But these developments don’t occur on their own. It takes strong, principled leadership to do the right thing when it’s the more difficult option – and an approach that goes against the short-termist inclinations of many businesses.
Everyone from the big housebuilders and the public sector right down to homeowners are now demanding green products and services – and that’s only going to increase as the negative impacts of climate change become more and more apparent.
In other words, if you stick with ‘business as usual’, you’re very quickly going to be left behind.
But if you have that leadership, and are willing to take action, the benefits aren’t just environmental.
A ‘for-more-than-profit’ ethos makes you a more rewarding, satisfying and meaningful place to work – something that’s bound to translate into happier, more highly motivated employee and higher rates of staff retention.
And more broadly, people like dealing with decent people. Ethical, progressive companies do better, because people want to do business with them.
If it’s a straight choice between two equally skilled and similarly priced suppliers, they’re likely to choose the more ‘feelgood’ business.
Ultimately, it’s not especially expensive or complicated to become more socially responsible. Many small to medium-sized businesses could easily do it – and if more did, the positive impact would be immense.