How to craft an impactful corporate social responsibility document for sustainability

Image of a robot hugging a tree with a cute deer in the background.
March 2, 2020

Jo Fraser



If we devote our working lives to building businesses — measuring success only through revenue growth and industry domination while neglecting our planet — we might find ourselves with nothing.

The question is: How do we keep working when we're facing a climate and ecological crisis of this scale? The sustainability section of a Corporate Social Responsibility document is a good place to start

What is a CSR document, and why should you create one?

"If you extinct all the biodiversity and we end up living on a sandheap with a Norwegian rat and some cockroaches, that doesn't have too much logic to it."

— Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face.

Tompkins was referring to growing his business, and he made a good point.

A Corporate Social Responsibility statement indicates that corporations have a degree of responsibility for the economic, social and environmental implications of their activities. It's the understanding that every action of a corporation overlaps in some way with social and environmental factors.

Without one, we may end up sitting on a sandheap dressed in The North Face with a rat for a friend.

Everything from the choice of cloud infrastructure provider to the utensils employees use to eat their lunch has some impact outside of the walls of a business. CSR helps plan how to reduce the negative effects of those choices. But it's not just about squashing negative impacts. CSR is all about using your company's unique capabilities to help. If you deal in software, your CSR statement might include a committment to offer pro bono work for charities or NGOs. A CSR is not a mitigation document –– it shouldn't be just about fighting fires. Sustainability is about using your creativity and imagination to develop a better way to do things. Anything less than that will probably bore employees and quickly be forgotten.

More companies are recognizing the benefits of integrating CSR into a business model, but it's never too late to start. For a technology company like Contentful, CSR can start off as informal or assumed, rather than formalized into a document or strategy. It can rely on the moral compasses of the founder and key decision-makers within the company. This might work in the short-term, but you'll find employees and customers holding you accountable. It pays to create a policy or a living document that acts as a guide as soon as you can.

Having a CSR strategy is good for business. To quote Niall Fitzgerald, former CEO & chairman at Unilever, "We believe that the leading global companies of 2020 will be those that provide goods and services and reach new customers in ways that address the world's major challenges — including poverty, climate change, resource depletion, globalization and demographic shifts." A CSR can move beyond good corporate citizenship and mitigating social and environmental impacts. It can also offer a competitive edge or open up new opportunities.

Just think about the Toyota Prius. Consumers wanted to reduce their carbon emissions produced by driving. The hybrid electric/gasoline car, one of the first of its kind, gave Toyota a competitive advantage and is less harmful to the environment. Companies like Nike, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop also demonstrate the success of strong CSR policies. And if that's not convincing, a good CSR policy is attractive to investors. According to the CFA Institute (2017), 78% of analysts take environmental, social and governance performance into consideration for their investment decisions.

Let's talk sustainability: What should your policy include?

Look at every aspect of the business — including your partners

Google is a big proponent of a circular economy. They call their CSR document the circular Google strategy, and it demands a redefinition of how systems work; that we care about the lifecycle of everything that we buy, use and create. This requires identifying, tracking and managing every aspect of your business.

For a technology company, this can include assessing their cloud infrastructure provider and its respective data centers. To quote Geoff Fox, the innovation officer at Digiplex, it's important to "understand that every cloud lives inside a data center. And each has a different footprint." The rapid growth of the cloud and our use of the internet have produced a massive demand for electricity. Called the 'factories of the digital age,' while remaining mostly invisible to the average person, data centers require considerable amounts of energy to run and cool their infrastructure. According to a recent report in the journal Nature, data centers use 200 terawatts of energy a year — roughly one percent of global electricity used.

Support and ideas from your employees

There's a good chance that your employees have a lot of good things to say about sustainability and CSR. A company's approach to sustainability is also something that attracts or detracts new hires. Seventy-six percent of millennials consider a company's social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, and 64% would not take a job if a potential employer didn't have strong corporate social responsibility practices.

Get people on board from the get-go by involving your employees in brainstorming and crafting policies. You'll learn what's important to them, and you'll tap into the intelligence of your people. When it comes to starting any projects or changing up the way you do things, you will need people championing your cause. Start with brainstorming sessions, assign a task force and find a project manager — treat the creation of your CSR like any other project.

Long-term strategy and growth

Paul Polman made sustainability his top priority during his time as CEO at Unilever. He developed an ambitious plan to double Unilever's revenues while halving the company's adverse effects on the environment. He credits his success to eliminating short-term vision, saying, "You cannot solve issues like poverty or climate change or food security with the myopic focus on quarterly reporting." Sure, making small changes like removing plastic straws from the kitchen or installing LEDs throughout the office makes a difference. But the big stuff –– sustainable supply chains, being carbon neutral or negative –– can take time. It's essential that your CSR plan addresses underlying causes, no matter how ingrained in your systems and processes, rather than just skimming the surface.

For more resources on crafting a sustainability document or CSR, check out:

About the author

Don't miss the latest

Get updates in your inbox
Discover how to build better digital experiences with Contentful.
add-circle arrow-right remove style-two-pin-marker subtract-circle remove