Voir c’est croire

July 01, 2004

The Entente Cordiale marks 100 years of friendship between Britain and France. Vincent de Rivaz reports on opportunities for corporate responsibility.

Celebrations to mark 100 years of the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain provide a perfect opportunity to extend the common corporate responsibility policies between our countries.

I recently led the first Seeing is Believing visit to France organised through Business in the Community (BITC). In June, I also attended the official launch of the European Seeing is Believing programme. The programme encourages British companies to adapt their corporate responsibility approaches so as to help community needs in other parts of Europe.

With the role of the UK state having reduced, business initiatives have become important in making up the difference. At EDF Energy, for example, as well as making improvements to housing stock through our core energy services, we also help vulnerable people break the cycle of debt and get out of fuel poverty though the EDF Energy Trust. Corporate initiatives such as this are generally undertaken within frameworks for planning and co-ordination supported by the UK government.

By contrast, in France the role of state and local authorities remains more significant in matters related to social cohesion (solidarité) and education. Businesses, however, still have a role to play.

My Seeing is Believing visit to Paris demonstrated that social problems in France and the UK are similar: exclusion, poverty, deprived zones with barriers to equal access to opportunity. No company on either side of the Channel can flourish among these conditions. Nor can any civilised society sustain ongoing exclusion and division.

Our employees, through our corporate responsibility programmes, engage and interact with the wider community and both sides benefit from this involvement. Employee volunteering presents some extraordinary examples of leadership as well as tremendous development opportunities. This too is common to both countries.

So staff and the communities benefit. But, for us, staff are the lifeblood of the company. They know our business better than anyone and community work helps us engage them in our future and that of our customers. Combined, these help us deliver for our shareholders too.

This perspective is gaining ground in the UK and marks the next stage in social policy evolution. It also explains how fundamental to business the concept of participating responsibly in society really is.

The most interesting thing about corporate social responsibility is that when you lead your people into it, you find yourself becoming led by them. So a clear commitment from the leadership becomes the commitment of employees. At EDF Energy, we are already seeing this and our corporate social responsibility has become our core responsibility.

Vincent de Rivaz is chief executive of EDF Energy, the French electricity company and owner of London Electricity. He is also a member of the Neighbourhood Renewal Private Sector Panel, organised by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.