There is a shift happening in the business world and it’s coming to a company near you. It is the new, intensified and completely transparent model of corporate social responsibility.
In many communities social responsibility has two tags: one is environmental and the other is community. Are the major employers playing by the rules of environmental consciousness and are they giving back? Yes, they are giving back. The average Canadian donates one per cent of their annual income to charity but corporate donation is at a much lower level of .02 to .07 per cent of annual income. The sponsorship of the little league may seem like a big play in your backyard but in reality is just a drop in the ocean of reduced taxation.
The environmental rules are a little more elusive. I’ll use a real example. One company in our area gave to the community while draining a local lake for fracking. It pulled so much water out (over one metre) that the ice imploded causing a huge environmental disaster. There was no recourse because they had a licence to pump water. In this case we heard the redundant argument of sustainable action — the pumping was licensed, the lake will recover (in 15 years) and they cleaned up after themselves so that is going the distance.
And that brings us to the term, sustainability, an overused catchphrase that covers a lot of ground, and water. In terms of community concerns, companies rolled out the sustainability road map, to sustain is not to improve, it is to keep as is for future use. It is a catchphrase with a catch. When it comes to soil, water, air, financial wealth, health and societal needs, the sustainability veil covers it all but does not advance a society to the point of balance, or empowerment.
Some now argue that real social responsibility rests in profits. The more profitable you are the more jobs you provide and that in itself is enough. Indeed, a cattle feeder once told me the most important thing he can do for his community is to be profitable. I don’t argue with this because industry and commerce are the foundation of communities. But at some point we all need to give back in a way that moves the pin off the mark. And it is this type of social responsibility that folks are now looking for.
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To hold companies accountable for destruction is important. A case in point was published in Alberta Venture Business Magazine. In 2014 oil company “S” had revenue of $40 B with a return to communities of less than 0.06 per cent and the purchase of 11 per cent of its goods and services in the communities in which it operated, which might be seen as responsible. But that same company used 149 million cubic metres of fresh water, spilled 2,949 cubic metres of reportable substance and spewed out 21,934,000 tonnes of C02-equivalent emissions. The argument that they are creating jobs does not get close to narrowing the massive production and environmental issues that have long-term effects on those communities.
Small business in Canada is also responsible and by way of history often do not have to be motivated into giving. They are on the ground working in their communities, tend to be involved in actions that are reflective of their core business and do not have a “we are going to save the world” play because they want the community to thrive. If the community thrives, so do they.
At some point big business can lose the feel of the hand that feeds them. This Ivory Tower attitude is quickly covered by sustainable plans that cost little, save more and give the company a temporary social licence. Temporary, because as transparency increases so do expectations. The question is: how does this play out on the farm?
An Ipsos Reid study completed in 2012 asked Canadians what they knew of farming. Only seven per cent of respondents knew about farming, with 47 per cent knowing nothing about it at all. The remaining respondents knew a little. Based on this estimate seven per cent of Canadians have an idea of what a farm is and what a farmer does. Now take that into the discussion on social responsibility and you can see why it will be important that we all weigh in on the discussion. Will Canadian consumers lose the feel of the hand that feeds them?
Everything we do in agriculture is up for discussion and the national meetings on social licence were created out of this need. It goes well beyond covering our steps with the sustainability blanket — that won’t keep the cold fingers of societal expectations out any longer. Society wants water and may think farms should pay to use it, they want food and still want it cheap, they want clean air, the protection of animals and access to property for play. What they do not want is a scientific report or complicated answer or excuses.
Working towards a balanced approach to engaging agriculture while meeting the societal needs of our customer is going to be tough, and we start by influencing government, so we are not caught in a web of regulations that potentially drive down profitability. If one sign of a thriving community is jobs, then Canadian farms need to survive. Agriculture and agri-food are major employers. If part of our social licence is environmental consciousness then we need the data to prove it. If the future relies on healthy soil and clean air then we need to ensure it and if communities are built through rural activity then the economics of farming need to be shared.
Consider this: when it comes to social licence, the consumer could be our friend because we have shared values. They just don’t know us. And that story is ours to tell.