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What is it about Britain that supposedly makes us the leaders in CSR?

This article from the Independent newspaper shows just how poorly the UK is performing on sustainability.

As someone who works in UK CSR, when I go abroad to conferences and meetings one common theme I hear is the idea that UK companies are further ahead than the rest of the world.

When I look at some of our biggest companies I do see some market changing announcements being led from UK firms.

There’s a piece on some favourite firms we picked out last month here

However, in this list we only picked a couple of UK firms. Most notably Cadbury and Marks and Spencer.

Companies such as BP, BT, the two above and a host of others have made enough noise to make people think the UK is the ‘leader’ in CSR.

Nestle’s former CEO, Peter Brabeck-Lamathe, told me in an interview a couple of years ago that post-colonial guilt drove our NGOs to blame companies for poverty problems overseas.

While he perhaps had a small point about incentives for companies to get engaged in CSR, I think it’s been the incredibly competitive media sector that has been a key player. That and the modern UK love of excessive corporate PR.

But I wonder if the ‘leader’ mantle, if appropriate at all, is now slipping due to economic conditions and poor government leadership and incentives.

We’ve heard about quite a few big UK firms laying off many of their CSR people recently.

That anecdotal evidence aside, whilst it remains so complex to market ‘ethics’ by big firms, sooner or later government incentives on key issues, particularly the environment, become very very important.

It appears clear to me that many countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are streets ahead on many vitally important social and environmental issues.

If you look at comparative size, you’ll find these nation’s companies ahead of ours.

What I mean by this is if you look at activities in firms of say 5000 employees and above, you’ll find a lot more action going on in those countries than here.

It’s no co-incidence that their governments are much more socially and enviromentally progressive.

And their bigger companies are much less keen on PR than their UK counterparts, preferring action over announcements, another reason for the UK’s apparent leadership position.

The UK Sustainable Development Commission’s latest report, out on Wednesday, has some interesting details on how far behind on key national targets the UK is at the moment.

Some advanced leaked details are in the article I linked to above.

Companies could help make a more serious contribution to these, if our government knew how to engage them better. It’s been made to work elsewhere in northern Europe.

Those of us working in this field for a while have grown increasingly tired of the UK government’s poor performance in encouraging responsible and sustainable business.

It’s time for a change. The post of CSR Minister should be abolished here, and responsibilities for encouraging CSR should made part of Secretary of State portfolios.

Roll on next May, when our election is due by, and let’s hope David Cameron means what he says about both corporate responsibility encouragement and the environment.

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