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Hans Daems, new head of CSR Europe, says companies across Europe must collaborate with each other and society to meet the challenges that are feeding the populist backlash
In a year when it seemed Europe had started to come apart at the seams, becoming the new chairman of an organisation called CSR Europe may seem something of a pyrrhic victory.
But for Hans Daems, a Belgian who has lived in the UK for nine years as group public affairs officer at Hitachi Europe, the need for companies from across Europe to work together on the sustainability agenda through his organisation has never been greater.
He suggests that companies should play a pivotal role in tackling the societal changes that helped create the populist backlash seen across the European Union this year: the 7 million 15- to 24-year-olds in Europe who are in neither employment, education or training (the Neets), and the large number of young refugees and migrants who have flooded into Europe, many of them with valuable skills and qualifications that Daems argues could be a valuable asset for the European economy.
“As businesses, we have to recognise this is clearly the biggest issue that Europe is confronted with,” the soft-spoken Belgian says. And it is where business can make the biggest contribution.
Daems points out that CSR Europe is uniquely placed to help companies work together on these challenges. It has 50 corporate members of its European Business Network for Corporate Social Responsibility, and represents 11,000 companies Europe-wide through its partnership with national CSR organisations, such as Business in the Community (BITC) in the UK.
CSR Europe is headquartered in Brussels, and gets sponsorship from the European Commission for campaigns such as the European Pact for Youth, which brings together companies, educators, and the EU institutions, and aims to encourage business-education partnerships to reduce youth unemployment and the skills gap.
This is something the European Commission set as a priority in June this year, when it launched the European Skills Agenda to address what it described as three pressing challenges facing Europe: the lack of relevant skills to match labour market needs, the insufficient transparency of skills and qualifications, and the difficulty of forecasting which skills will be needed for labour markets of the future.
Daems points out that his own company, Hitachi, has seen the value of tackling this issue. When Hitachi looked to recruit 730 people for its £82m new rail manufacturing facility in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, it worked with a local technical college to develop training programmes for apprentices and graduates. Hitachi also goes into schools trying to explain, particularly to girls, the importance of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
The skills gap will be even more acute in future as the workplace becomes more dominated by technology. “As processes become more digitised this will have an inevitable impact on employability,” Daems said.
The other major campaign for CSR Europe is its Sustainable Business Campaign, a platform that was launched earlier this month and seeks to use the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to drive growth and European competitiveness.
“Through CSR Europe’s new programme, we aim to leverage the impact of over 10,000 companies in our network in order to address common challenges, promote the adoption of transformative business models and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals,” CSR Europe’s executive director Stefan Crets said in launching the campaign. “This cannot be done purely by the private sector, and so we will also engage stakeholders from civil society, governments and academia to increase this impact by working together.”
Daems points out that the SDGs could play the same role as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which have been instrumental in moving human rights issues up the corporate agenda by providing a framework for action. “The SDGs are a great way to engage as a business with society. It is a great way to set your agenda, such as materiality analysis and engagement with stakeholders.” Most importantly, he says, engaging with them allows CSR practitioners to demonstrate internally that what they do matters. “One thing that CSR practitioners struggle with is talking with other people in their companies. CSR for many people has to do with philanthrophy. The SDGs gives practitioners a license to demonstrate at the highest levels that [CSR] has strategic value and can ultimately lead to business opportunities.”
Credit: JJ Ellison
Another big issue CSR Europe is working on is helping members increase non-financial reporting. “We’ve been working a long time on identifying the material issues for business, and setting a framework that businesses can measure themselves against,” Daems said. When a company is able to establish what its ESG impacts are, measure its performance on those issues and communicate how it is doing to stakeholders, there is a huge boost to its credibility, and its ability to attract and retain staff. “In turbulent times, business leaders who demonstrate that they live up to their values will be most successful.”
CSR Europe is also helping members collaborate on supply chain issues, with the biggest platform being the European Automotive Working Group on Supply Chain Sustainability, which includes BMW Group, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company, Jaguar Land Rover, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Scania, Toyota Motor Europe, Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft, and Volvo Group. “It’s a great example of what an organisation like CSR Europe is capable of doing,” he says.
Daems says CSR Europe has benefitted from its close association with the European Commission, the first legislative body in the world to promote a framework for CSR. And though CSR has become increasingly important in the US, moving away from philanthropy to having an impact on how companies operate, European companies have a head start because of their consensual approach, he said. “In Europe we have the benefit of the European model of engaging with stakeholders and consultation. We are very good at asking questions, taking opinions into account and reflecting them, and in longer-term engagement as well.”
Asked what role UK companies will have in the organisation post-Brexit, he says CSR Europe will be open to UK companies in the same way as it is to non-EU companies now. If anything, they will need its assistance even more, particularly if the UK leaves Europe under a hard Brexit scenario that limits freedom of movement. “It’s a tough question, how will this country deal with this issue of finding the right skills [post-Brexit]. People being able to move from one country to another without difficulty [as they do now] is hugely positive for business.”
Whatever happens to Europe politically, he believes the only way forward for companies is collaboration across borders. “Running your business in a sustainable way is not an issue for one country. Societal issues are so complex that no one should be under the illusion they can solve them on their own. Everything is leading towards collaboration and co-creation.”