Chain reaction

January 01, 2004

Very politely, the editor rejected my first attempt at a guest editorial about small businesses and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Reading between the lines, he was telling me to be more radical when it comes to the connections between big and small business, and environmental and social performance.

Certainly, the big businesses which are exemplar corporate citizens have a critical leadership role to promote CSR to smaller firms through their ‘influence chains’, namely:

  • supply chain – the direct contractual relationships with supplier companies;
  • neighbourhood chain – where the big company is the significant player in town;
  • leadership chain – sectoral representation through trade associations, trade press and other industry channels.

We need more companies to follow the example of B&Q, which assists its suppliers to achieve environmental and social performance tender requirements. There’s also BT, which is currently surveying a thousand of its small business customers to see how it can support/motivate its SME customers in addressing its own social and environmental impacts.

But the more we debate the issues of CSR and the smaller firm – both in the UK’s Small Business Consortium and in the EU’s Multi-stakeholder Forum on CSR – the more I realise that we have to reject the implicit assumption that small businesses are the students and big business the teachers. From the examples we are seeing (such as Beacon Press featured in the new pamphlet on the ‘Business Case for CSR’ from Arthur D. Little and Business in the Community), small firms have as much to teach as to learn when it comes to innovative environmental and social performance.

That is certainly the philosophy of the Small Business Consortium, a new group that  aims to raise the competitiveness of small businesses through improving their social, environmental and community impact. This has been formed by small businesses and key organisations such as the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses and BitC.

The Consortium aims to meet the need for successful CSR case-studies, business case arguments and how-to guides for small businesses – all with a view to helping member SMEs incorporate CSR into their ‘day-job’. I hope that by pooling our collective resources and expertise, the Consortium will help create the kind of language, examples, arguments and ‘how-to’ knowledge (drawn largely from small firms themselves) that the small business field is currently lacking.

Similarly, I hope that the EU Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) on CSR – one of whose four main topics is how to foster CSR amongst small businesses – will emphasise learning from small firms themselves when the MSF reports in early summer 2004.

Meanwhile, I have three easy new year resolutions for readers:

  • tap into existing thinking and networks: a good place to start for information and links is CSR Europe’s SME Key initiative (http://www.smekey.org);
  • feed into the wider policy debate: contribute your opinion, for example, to the MSF’s current debate on SMEs;
  • above all, be humble: talk to your suppliers about what works, and ask what you might learn from the good practice examples of small firms.

Editorial Comment

Date for your diary: Briefing is hosting a new series of Breakfast Debates. We kick off in 2004 with a discussion on the role of larger companies in promoting CSR among SMEs in their value chain – whether they are customers, suppliers or colleagues.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 73 – January, 2004

David Grayson is a member of Briefing’s editorial advisory panel. He chairs the Small Business Consortium and is rapporteur for the European Multi-Stakeholder forum on SMEs.
His next book, Corporate Social Opportunity, with Adrian Hodges will be published by Greenleaf in Spring 2004.

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