One of the quiet questions often asked around the social aspects of ESG programmes is what really constitutes social goals or purpose activity, versus CSR or any other people-based initiative.
Does it matter what it’s called? The label attached to it is likely to matter far less than the impact created.
But as many companies seek to demonstrate real, tangible progress on the social elements of ESG with relatively new goals in response to shifting public expectations, there are equally some firms that deliver programmes which date back years if not decades, and that have continued to evolve.
Some of the action may fall under an ESG strategy, some under CSR or something similar, and some under HR programmes. In the case of software giant SAP, today’s challenge rests partly in joining the dots between initiatives across economic, environmental and community-focussed social initiatives, to achieve greater overall impact from them. And in doing so, to show that the business has invested in many of those areas over the long haul, rather than them being newer pledges.
The company has taken social commitments seriously, and sought to innovate with its actions for more than half a century.
Today, with concerns about greenwashing rife and purpose-driven social action derided as ‘woke’ by some political circles, SAP continues to stay the course in delivering on social commitments and agendas it has pursued for many years, while introducing new methods for accelerating change.
The company focuses on three areas to deliver positive social impact - accelerating social business, collaborating for sustainability and building future skills. None of that action is in isolation, as it can drive progress with parallel environmental and governance goals too, for example.
As Lindsey Rowe, SAP’s UK and Ireland Head of Purpose Programmes and Sustainability, pointed out, each social programme or activity is now subject to detailed due diligence to assess the complexity of achieving it. In many cases that area of change has already been a focus for many years, or measuring the difference that is being made is far from easy.
And none of it has its origins in a marketing or communications campaign - though communicating progress and inspiring engagement from colleagues is often an important part of the mix. “The story is important, but it’s to help drive the success of the initiative, rather than this being really all about marketing,” said Lindsey.
“In the past few years, the hardest things have been to continue to nurture our culture and mindset so that our people are acutely aware of our social impact, the part they all play in that, and the environmental impact of their behaviour,” she said. “We have introduced many new policies post-pandemic that continue to make us a better business for society, but the hard yards that we gained in all the years leading up to that are what put us in a good position now to compel our colleagues to make those changes, and all make a difference.”
As a technology company that was an early pioneer of many social goals, SAP has something of an advantage over similarly-sized firms because information is its business, and so its people are predisposed to wanting data-based evidence of the impact that is being created. That in itself can be self-perpetuating, with more evidence compelling more action as the data tells the ‘story’ of progress.
“Whilst we have seen that organisations in other industries falling foul of greenwashing claims, I think it’s important to distinguish between those taking conscious action to mislead and those that are wholeheartedly committed to sustainable impact but earlier in their journeys. For the latter, perhaps ‘greenwishing’ is a more appropriate term as their strategies can take time to embed and deliver the outcomes they aspire to,” said Lindsey.
The technology sector has come in for criticism on multiple social fronts in recent years, particularly around the perceived negative culture behaviour in some corners of Silicon Valley.
As one of the longest-established tech firms, and with its roots firmly in Europe, SAP has a distinct approach to social goals and clear sight of how communication can help in achieving them. But it’s also supremely aware of the complexity and difficulty involved in achieving that change over the long haul.
The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.
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