The UK’s corporate responsibility spending black hole and marketing the indefensible

UK government spending under scrutiny

How much does it cost to be a corporate social responsibility leader (especially if you blow most of it)? Not that much, apparently, if you are the UK government.

Despite the worldwide reputation British companies have as responsible business leaders, none of the domestic success really has much to do with the government. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (now shutting down its Sustainable Development and Business Group) and the Department for International Development have made an important contribution. The Ethical Trading Initiative, the Kimberly Process, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and particularly the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative have scored some significant success in awareness-raising and real action. But on the home front it has really been a confused and inept mess.

From 2001, minister after minister for corporate responsibility has come and gone, each achieving little while in office. Meanwhile the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), formerly the Department of Trade and Industry, has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to little end, and now seems embroiled in a fight over which of the many departments should run responsible business policy within government.

Here are the figures for spending supporting various initiatives, according to responses to questions in the House of Commons from Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly in March: 2003: £348,602; 2004: £484,636; 2005: £462,533; 2006: £309,577; 2007: £567,537; 2008: £192,813 (projected).

Money goes annually to the UN Global Compact (£80,000) and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (£3,000). All worthy projects in Greenwasher’s view. (Yes, despite the Global Compact’s many teething “bluewash” problems, it serves as cross border catalyst in many countries around the world, particularly outside OECD nations.)

What is really interesting is that, as far as Greenwasher can tell, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been wasted by the former DTI on failed domestic projects such as the CSR Academy, which has now been foisted on a reluctant Business in the Community. So the best money spent has been by the FCO and DFID – departments that are, apparently, not in charge of corporate social responsibility any more. Shame.

Greenwasher eagerly awaits BERR’s new initiatives for 2008-9. One seasoned commentator expressed surprise at how little is being spent by the government on corporate responsibility, given the UK’s international profile in the area. Greenwasher is tempted to agree, but what about all those hundreds of thousands of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money wasted domestically in recent years? Surely a mini-scandal. Better to give the cash to the FCO and DFID, which at least seem to know how to use some of it sensibly. Who said pay is linked to performance in government, eh?

Green bombs away

The grey areas of corporate responsibility are always the most interesting, for example the ethics of, among others, booze, baccy and bombs.

With the environment top of every marketer’s mind these days, a recent insert in the Financial Times by that well-managed defence colossus EADS raises an eyebrow. Everyone needs their ethics angle, and EADS, which makes Airbus planes, Eurocopter, Eurofighter, Galileo satellites and Meteor missiles, is keen to get its voice heard.

As the six-page pullout ad – which comes complete with images of plane wings over melting glaciers – points out, ecosystems need monitoring. This is something that can be done by EADS satellites, the company says. “Our crop monitoring may one day help improve harvests in the poorest regions,” it claims. Fair enough, Greenwasher supposes, if crop monitoring actually becomes a core business interest for EADS.

According to the ad blurb, the A380 burns 17 per cent less fuel than rival aircraft. How that’s calculated and whether any rivals can match the 600-odd seats available on the A380 is possibly another matter. Readers of this magazine will be well used to small environmental efficiencies being constantly presented as “green” products by companies.

Greenwasher is all for greener business, but when satellites are presented as having a primary purpose of monitoring ecosystems, rather than the defence, spying and telecommunications activities they are actually used for, it does rather sound a little overheated. A bit like the planet, really.

Climate stats scams

UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s boast that Britain’s carbon footprint is shrinking is based on a calculating technique that hugely underestimates emissions. So said the National Audit Office in a mid-March report.

The auditors say UK greenhouse gas emissions are at least 78 million tonnes higher than shown in official figures. The government says that Britain emitted greenhouse gases equivalent to 656 million tonnes of CO2 in 2005. The NAO says the figure is more like 733 million.

The difference, apparently, comes from adding aviation and shipping, which represents about an extra 10 per cent. The NAO says there have been “no reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions” if they are measured on the basis that the proportion of air passengers taking off in Britain who are British is bigger than the government’s 50 per cent estimate. It’s all up in the air. As the Guinness adverts once pointed out, 66.6 per cent of statistics are made up on the spot.

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