When times are hard it can be even more difficult to focus on elements of the business which may seem or feel like a “nice to have”. With shipping companies facing a tough climate, what does that mean for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?
WHICH WAY NOW
KVH Media Group recently attended the latest, and 6th Annual Corporate and Social Responsibility Forum in London. An event which focused on trying to find and develop CSR best practice. While the maritime business climate is tough, it was stressed that the rest of the world is looking at shipping, and it cannot be found wanting. Whether it is environmental matters, the human rights of seafarers or finding sustainable ways of operating – the demands are there, regardless of the freight rate.
The forum explored what it means to operate a company in line with the increasing demands of society, the law and investors. The fact remains that one size does not fit all, and there is no united vision of what it means to operate a business responsibly.
For some, CSR is about the need to be nice, for some it is about protecting the environment, while others just do not seem to know what to make of it all. That is the key struggle when it comes to CSR, it is impossible to explain what it should mean.
Tough as it is, companies have to find their own sense of self and of the ways they can perform better. Of how they can support their businesses but beyond that too, finding a means of providing more than just looking down to the bottom line, but to explore the moral high ground too.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of CSR for the shipping industry is the concept is so diverse. Just as in the shipping industry itself are so many varied challenges, and usually the wisest companies await rules and regulations before they roll their dice.
To be faced with a challenge which rests on committing to change and to do things before you have too…well that is a tough ask, which is perhaps why it seems shipping struggles. As we know, even today not all companies provide the internet, movies or news to their crew, and not all provide high quality training. There are many gaps in the industry.
To really engage with the concept of CSR is the first hurdle, and that is the hardest sell to shipping. Just who in a pressed shipping company has the time, space or willingness to go further than the legislation demands? For most executives, seeking to push the company beyond where it needs to go is like putting their own head in a noose. Turkey’s do not vote for Christmas, and office staff do not give themselves problems to solve.
When the corporate challenge is, “to care enough to care enough”, that is quite a leap of faith. When times are as hard, as they are now, shifting a focus away from the bottom line could seem suicidal. So CSR can often become an issue too far, a question which legally doesn’t have to be addressed, but morally has to be.
DOING GOOD IS GOOD
At its core the concept of CSR is to move above what would be required to operate legally. Not polluting, not killing or injuring employees, these are givens. CSR is about beyond basics. It is about more than not making life worse for the people who come into contact with the company, how about making life better.
There are obvious and existing moral, legal and ethical duties for companies, and CSR is about pulling these together into a coherent approach and way of operating. Is CSR a culture or a practice is the key question? Is it about doing things, or the thinking which underpins them? Do companies even know or care?
The harsh business reality today is that shipping companies are struggling – they are battling a slowdown in trade, they are faced with too many ships, tighter competition, and a raft of new rules. These are all problems which have to be factored in, so it is understandable why looking beyond survival is seemingly a big ask for many.
That is point though, operating with CSR at the core of a company does not insulate it from corporate problems. There will always pressures to win work, to manage costs, etc, etc. That is what business is. For shipping, however, there are other pressures to be faced. Transparency, accountability and reputation matter ever more, and legislators, investors, politicians, and clients, all demand more. In the face of this, a foundation of good, honest and realistic CSR is vital.
CSR AS BUSINESS CPR
How though can shipping companies deliver on the demands of so many potential pressure points? Well, there is no hiding the fact that it is hard. Businesses do not operate in a vacuum, though, and so challenges will always exist and have to be met. Companies are being forced to act, to step up and to do the right thing. How though?
Well perhaps CSR can be seen as an opportunity – a chance to ensure the company is pushing ahead, while the competition stand still. This is about doing the right things and them breathing new life and vigour into the way they are done.
KEYS TO SHIPPING CSR
CSR is ambiguous, deal with it: People will have different ideas, listen to them and find a route forward which delivers on the needs of the people the company affects, employees, and then the business.
Find a CSR Champion: The person who cares most about CSR will emerge, they need to be supported and encouraged to work through the ambiguity in CSR to help put the company on the right path.
Harnessing Influence: The best companies have people who define their role by their ability to influence, and in this context are able to demonstrate CSR results. Harness the fact that CSR can bring huge benefits in terms of positive exposure and can position the company as a leader.
Measuring Up: Doing the right thing is very hard to measure. If the company is doing well from a business perspective, if employees appear to be happy and satisfied, and if the company is visibly helping the community…it would seem CSR is working whatever the parameters. Making an impact is good, knowing how big that is, is better…so find some metrics which make sense.
Being Seen and Heard: Communication is a key part of CSR. Both in terms of making sure people or communities know you want to help or support, and then getting the message out that you have. Does a company do good if no-one can hear or see it? Yes, but that seems a waste…
Building into Business: The pressures to run the business do not go away, so CSR should sit well with the way that the company makes its money, what makes its business model work, and what are its mainstream risks and opportunities. Do good things around the things the company is good at.
So the time has come for shipping to take a bearing and to set course for a future with CSR at its core. It just needs to scrap some ships in the meantime…environmentally soundly of course.