• Consumers today increasingly value brands that prioritise corporate social responsibility (CSR).
  • However, while many organisations talk about such issues, some fail to act on CSR.
  • Action over words and impact not outcome should be the cornerstone of a sound and authentic CSR strategy.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR), environmental, social and governance (ESG), creating shared value (CSV), sustainability, corporate accountability, corporate citizenship - blindly jumping on the jargon-wagon is not a strategy. In fact, a visionary yet passive CSR rhetoric may generate the opposite of a positive impact.

Creating and running a business rooted in purpose, with actions firmly entrenched in a structured CSR programme, is a life-long commitment. To truly tackle our evolving social and environmental issues, brand promises must be backed by actions.

CSR and communications professionals have a responsibility to support modern consumers as they gradually factor in ethical conduct, and social and environmental corporate practices, when making purchasing decisions. Unless we intend to insult consumer intellect, we must engage in transparent conversations that question the integrity of CSR stories. And we must praise those entities or individuals that consistently turn talk into action.

Less talk, more action

Ever since the era of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), there has been no shortage of sweet talk aimed at tackling the world’s biggest challenges. The main result of that bygone era, however, is the lack of significant improvements to the state of the world since then.

Fast forward to 2020, at the dawn of the Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030), and unfortunately the world is still talking more and doing less. The good news, however, is that today’s consumers value companies that are making their mark through CSR deeds.

Of course, CSR must be communicated well, but action should prevail over aspirational talk.

—Baha Hamadi, Crescent Enterprises

Of course, CSR must be communicated well, but action should prevail over aspirational talk. There are many inspiring companies for which purpose has always been at the heart of operations. For instance, Crescent Enterprises' venture capital arm invests responsibly by partnering with purpose-driven entrepreneurs and start-ups, while its business incubation arm creates socially responsible businesses and develops them into economically viable and scalable ventures.

Sustainable transport company ION is a good example of one of Crescent Enterprises’ most prominent incubated businesses. It was established based on a clear vision of incorporating environmental impact into the economic viability of the business model.

Such companies are not only making a tangible difference through their impact-driven CSR strategies, they are embedding sustainability in their operations from the get-go and also conducting business responsibly in the first place.

While it is rewarding to adopt a purpose-driven business model from the outset, sustainability can be pursued at any stage of the business lifecycle. Global brands with a presence in MENA increasingly recognise the importance of net-zero policies as it becomes clear that unsustainable operations will have a negative impact on brand perception, eventually hurting the bottom line. For example, Uber has committed to become a zero-emission mobility platform by 2040. Didi Chuxing is also working to reduce carbon emissions.

Starbucks Middle East, operated by Alshaya Group, is a good example of how a well-established brand can execute a sustainable transformation. After joining the straw-less movement earlier this year, it is working to become resource positive by 2030. In addition to reducing carbon emissions and waste, the company has also expanded its plant-based and environmentally friendly menu in the region, and is shifting to reusable packaging and greener stores. It is also encouraging its partners and customers to join its sustainability journey across 9,000 Starbucks stores in the MENA region.

Aspirational talk doesn’t impede CSR. Recent research has actually shown that CSR is partially shaped by talk and communication, and that talking is now an action in its own right (also known as "twalking"). Aspirational talk is key to social change, but we must live up to our aspirations. Prioritising talk over action leads to customer disengagement and even employee cynicism.

Entrepreneurs must become more social

There is no shortage of entrepreneurs in the world of business, particularly in the start-up ecosystem, but how many are social entrepreneurs? Budding entrepreneurs must recognise that sustainability does not preclude prosperity and business growth, otherwise they will fail to entrench purpose in their core operations from inception.

The recruitment industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region provides a good example. For more than 30 years, youth unemployment has been one of the most pressing socio-economic challenges in the region. The youth unemployment rate in MENA is currently among the highest globally at more than 27%, approximately twice the global average.

There is no shortage of entrepreneurs in the world of business, particularly in the start-up ecosystem, but how many are social entrepreneurs?

—Baha Hamadi, Crescent Enterprises

Projected economic growth over the coming few years is unlikely to adequately address the region’s high unemployment rates. By taking action, recruitment firms could help bridge this gap. They could go beyond the passive bridge-building exercise between employees and employers to adopt purposeful business models that help reduce youth unemployment while generating profit.

I believe that unemployment among MENA’s youth is partially driven by education systems that are out of touch with the present and future of work. The result is young jobseekers who lack the knowledge, skills and abilities sought by the employment market.

To address these issues, we need to see a new breed of recruiters that work closely with jobseekers and provide them with hands-on support and guidance through their job search. Such business models can be profitable while helping tackle unemployment.

What can businesses do?

All businesses must take it upon themselves to set their own CSR guiding principles. Action over words and impact not outcome should be the cornerstone of a sound and authentic CSR strategy. Businesses should also adopt universal and common standards to showcase sustainable value creation while maintaining transparency and accountability. By committing to the World Economic Forum’s Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics, for example, busines leaders can join a global coalition of companies providing concise, consistent and comparable metrics and disclosures for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Action over words and impact not outcome should be the cornerstone of a sound and authentic CSR strategy.

—Baha Hamadi, Crescent Enterprises

Social action and proper reporting are also the responsibility of businesses of all sizes— not just large organisations, but also small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and start-ups. According to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority, SMEs contributed about 53% to the nation’s GDP in 2019, compared to approximately 49% in 2018. UAE Ministry of Economy figures also show SMEs account for more than 94% of the total companies in the country and employ more than 86% of the private sector workforce. Imagine the impact these organisations could have if they all stopped talking and acted on CSR instead.

For your next CSR endeavour, consider at least striking a balance between talk and action. Avoid the temptation of taking the buzzword train. Keep communications plain and simple—say what you do and do what you say, consistently. A genuine approach to CSR could be your brand differentiator when other brands accept hyperbole.