By necessity, the business world doesn’t go in for a great deal of sharing.
The nature of market competition, and the need to get (and stay) ahead of your competitors often doesn’t leave much room for niceties.
If you find an approach that works — whether that’s a more efficient system for boosting your productivity, or a better system for engaging your employees — a business leader will always be reticent to share specifics with their closest business rivals. You may want other boardrooms to be aware you’re doing very well, but it’s usually considered better to keep them wondering how you’re actually managing it.
This isn’t selfishness, of course; just good business sense. For every leap in market strength that you might win through unique efforts of innovation, you’re likely to make many more through consistent, focused work to grind out better processes, concentrate on strategies, and improve leadership approaches.
When you find a winning formula in any one, it is intensely useful that commercial rivals aren’t availed of that same knowledge.
But what about in the realms of corporate social responsibility (CSR)? In principle, you might argue logically that the same principle holds true. There are, after all, many business advantages to be gained from a robust CSR approach — from improving the way you manage your supply chains and the positive public image you can create to cost savings that come with energy efficiency.
These are improvements that can make a significant positive impression on a business’ profitability, which is why CSR principles and efforts have been embraced with such gusto by many companies across the region.
That is a very welcome development, but I would also argue that there need not be the same compulsion to keep a great idea quiet when it comes to CSR. Indeed, I would suggest that an individual business’s winning CSR approach is improved much more when standards of things like accountability and environmental awareness are pushed higher by collective effort.
Now, you could argue that this is only true because investing in sustainability — say, in embracing strict ethical policies for the suppliers you deal with — always comes with the potential for higher costs or reduced trading opportunities. If you’re the only competitor doing it, some businesses might feel they are only putting themselves at a disadvantage.
But if everybody agrees to play by the same rules, at least you start from the same place.
This isn’t, however, a course of argument that holds much weight. It’s not hard to think of examples of corporate scandals where an individual company was caught doing something unethical or environmentally questionable. When such incidents occur, a mixture of public outcry, customer pressure, and the glare of media attention are universally enough to push the company to chart a drastic course change to catch up with the leading companies.
The potential for a negative impact to a brand can often be enough on its own to prompt companies to stay at the leading edge of CSR efforts, rather than ploughing a furrow as the lowest acceptable standard yet to be noticed by the wider community.
In short then, everybody wins when individual businesses expand their CSR efforts, share their best practices, and help support other parts of their market to keep moving forward with sustainable business practices. When companies meet and explain how they have become more sustainable, the whole community gains more intelligence to push the needle positively.
Everyone takes advantages of the business wins — lower emissions, community engagement, charitable efforts — and every company benefits from incremental guidance on how to plot their own path towards successful, sustainable business.
(Ahmad Badr is CEO of Knowledge Group.)