CSR and Accountability in an Age of Digitization

By Carol A Adams

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin“Digitization is the biggest environmentalist ever” according to Timotheus Höttges, CEO Deutsche Telekom in his opening keynote at the CSR conference at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Höttges made a case for digitization as a means of decoupling resource consumption from economic growth and gave examples of how digitization had reduced energy and natural resource consumption. It allows us to revolutionise the way energy is produced and distributed, reducing energy consumption. Soil sensors linked with data analysis help farmers produce more and reduce water consumption. But he warned that e-waste is a growing problem with take back programmes only getting a tiny proportion of old mobile phones. Deutsche Telekom is taking digitization opportunities seriously investing 20% of its 2016 revenue in infrastructure to facilitate digital participation.

Digitisation will increase transparency

Georg Kell, former founding executive director of the UN Global Compact charted the growth of corporate attention on CSR and sustainability predicting that focus on Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) will increase and that finance will increasingly go to more responsible companies. He identified four megatrends addressing the limitation of traditional finance: the increasing valuation of natural resources available to companies; the evolution of value chain concepts; the increase in regulation to protect natural resources; and, the big one, the increased emphasis on transparency that comes with digitisation.

With all the talk of increased transparency as a result of digitization, the issue of credibility was raised and the need for non-financial assurance highlighted. Daniel Schmid, Chief Sustainability Officer of SAP discussed how they clarified which non financial information had been assured with KPMG putting a symbol on web pages where the information was assured.

Corporate action on the SDGs

A video message delivered by David Nabarro, Special Adviser to the UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, reinforced the transformation ahead pointing to the critical role of business in translating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into corporate action. Luis Neves, Climate Change and Sustainability Officer for Deutsche Telekom later discussed a range of technologies DT are developing in order to contribute to the SDGs.

Women and CSR

Panel discussion: Elaine Cohen and 7 men

Panel discussion: Elaine Cohen and 7 men

The first panel discussion of eight people was striking in that Elaine Cohen was the only woman, a point she noted did not reflect that women make 85-90% of purchasing decisions, now increasingly made through digital means. As a mother, she also drew attention to the dangers of the digital, online world for children and children’s rights. (As an aside, the under-represtation of women on panels at the GRI conference in May was also striking. Why is it that men are seen to have more authority on topics which have increased in visibility largely because of decisions and action by women?)

Sandra Waddock receives lifetime achievement award

Sandra Waddock

Sandra Waddock – life time achievement award

The biannual conference brings together academic, civil society and business leaders to address key challenges. Opening the conference, organiser Professor Joachim Schwalbach, who put together a great line up of speakers, said only 40% of submitted academic papers were accepted. And 380 people are taking part. In addition to the senior business and change leaders mentioned here, leading academics in the field included Sandra Waddock (an inspiration to women who will receive the life time achievement award) and Ed Freeman who got the award in 2014.

Change is certainly afoot.  I had the pleasure of hearing diverse presentations by young people keen to make a difference at yesterday’s  doctoral colloquium, including some working with companies such as VW.  I’m looking forward to them getting into leadership roles and changing the focus from the top.  I’m speaking on Friday on ESG issues, value creation and the role of reporting – more on that research later.

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