INTERVIEW: Jane Wood, Scottish Business in the Community
‘The public is more savvy. There is nowhere for businesses to hide’
Some say it is paternalistic, others that it is nothing more than public relations gloss used to paper over cracks in a company’s management practices.
In one recent report someone went so far as to say corporate social responsibility is simply dead, killed off by a succession of global company scandals including the meltdown in the banking system and, more recently, by the fiddling of emissions data at Volkswagen.
Yet for all the criticism aimed at it CSR is still with us, a survivor of decades of governance, regulation and, yes, attempts to define it as little more than a mask for hiding corporate sins and incompetence.
Jane Wood has heard it all before. She has worked in the CSR environment since joining Scottish Business in the Community as its interim chief executive on what was a six month contract. She took the job permanently and six years later she heads an office of 30 staff from Heriot Watt Research Park.
“I love it,” she says, “I just love being able to bring business and communities together to fix things.”
And that is a key part of CSR: encouraging businesses to play a part in improving their communities which include their customers, suppliers and employees. Whether it is supporting local sport and the arts or providing resources to help flood victims, Wood believes that companies that do good ultimately see the rewards in their bottom line.
“You cannot differentiate between business doing good for the community and doing good for themselves,” she says, “I get frustrated when I hear economists and analysts, and so on, talking about growth without looking at sustainability. Businesses need to be measured on being good.”
Sustainability. It is one of the CSR sector’s buzzwords, one that underpins the whole concept and is becoming a bigger part of the wider remit of business activity. Companies are increasingly tested by investors and customers alike on the value of their proposition and what they contribute in terms of improving working practices, customer relations and the environment.
Wood has recycled theses themes many times, but she detects a sea-change in attitudes and culture in business in spite of headline-grabbing crises which suggest company bosses continue to be tempted by greed and self-promotion to cheat the system. The irony in the VW case was that it involved fiddling data to achieve the sort of targets required by CSR campaigners. Wood rejects suggestions that setting demanding KPIs only encourages companies to bend the rules.
“No, not at all,” she says. “When there is a crisis like the Volkswagen case it is often because there has been a break down in the chain. Whoever was responsible had a contract, a job description, targets to reach and someone appraising them to make sure these things were done correctly.”
She admits to getting frustrated by companies that still cut CSR programmes when things get tough. “It is not about how companies spend their money, but how they make it,” she says. In other words, it is not just about writing a big cheque for charity, but how they integrate a CSR philosophy into everything they do.
“What concerns me most is when a company cuts its community investment without thinking about the value this brings. A company that invests in good environmental practice, in employee benefits, and so on, will get good people to work for it, and this translates to the bottom line.”
She says investors are now becoming more interested, and more demanding, about companies showing they are working towards ethical standards on the environment, on diversity and making workers feel valued. Past generations saw these as “add on” benefits to be applied in the good times and easily dispensable when circumstances deteriorated. Changes in investor and customer attitudes, largely driven by greater awareness and transparency, mean they can no longer get away with this sort of “pick n mix” approach to their broader responsibilities.
The internet has helped provide greater awareness about issues from slave labour to dumping waste at sea. Social media has enabled the word to spread.
“The requirement is for companies to be authentic,” says Wood. “The public is more savvy, choosing where to bank and where to buy their groceries, not just on price but on how companies behave. It means there is nowhere for businesses to hide.”
Tighter guidance and even legislation is spreading around the world. There is now something called the International Integrated Reporting Council which is part of the phenomenon demanding that companies include measures of their CSR performance among their tangible trading activities.
Wood accepts that CSR is part PR, part ethical behaviour. It is certainly a broadly defined category, embracing food poverty at one end and illegal trafficking at the other. In Scotland, a campaign is under way to tackle “Holiday Hunger” after statistics revealed that thousands of children go without hot meals during school holidays.
Wood was preparing to attend one of its meeting at RBS headquarters in St Andrew Square attended by representatives of several companies, mainly in the food industry.
She sits on two government committees focused on tackling poverty, an issue she regards as an indictment of modern society.
“It is shocking that we have this situation in our supposedly civilised country in 2015,” she says. “I am sure businesses will need little persuasion to do what they can to help.”
Birthplace: Oxford, moved to Scotland at age 12
Education: Napier University (hotel management)
Career highlights: Selling on Scottish Motor Mart; marketing at Swallow Hotels; head of corporate affairs for Boots in Scotland; joined SBC as interim CEO in 2009
Who do you cheer for when Scotland play England?
I have four children who were born in Scotland. I am part Welsh…
What is your age?
I am not saying.
When were you born?
I’m not telling you.
What do you remember of your first job?
It was at Scottish Motor Mart and involved dealing with secondhand car dealers in Falkirk and Stirlingshire. I think everyone would benefit by spending some time selling.
What did you get out of it?
I developed a thick skin.
So can you give some guidance on your age?
Photo: Jane Wood (by Terry Murden)