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Time to be tougher on caring

Caroline Cook, who has taken charge of CSR at HBG, talks to CN plus

Caroline Cook
Company: HBG
Head of CSR
CV: Career highlights include working for Business in the Community and Atkins

They call it greenwash, but hogwash would be closer to the truth. Companies nationwide are realising that they can tart up their corporate image simply by pumping out publicity about what a jolly nice business they are.

A nod that your company cares very deeply about the environment here, a wink that you do a lot of work for charity, and even the murkiest company can emerge from a dousing in unchecked, unaudited greenwash as an apparent paragon of corporate virtue.

But not if Caroline Cook has her way. In recent years, Ms Cook has worked to poke a pin in the balloon of such behaviour.

The former analytical chemist was most recently instrumental in developing Business in the Community's CR Index, one of the leading tools for benchmarking companies from across all industries in terms of their performance on a series of corporate responsibility indicators.

With names such as Tesco, PricewaterhouseCoopers and HBOS among 250 of the UK's largest companies taking part in the most recent index, its credibility is well established, offering a potent antidote to the greenwash epidemic.

Find the gap

"It provides a useful framework to see how companies are performing and where the gaps are, giving feedback at board level to show where companies are and what they need to do to improve," says Ms Cook.

Now, she is bringing this experience to the construction industry, joining HBG as the company's new head of corporate social responsibility. So, as she gets to grips with the role, how does she view the industry's CSR performance?

"My perception is that there is a lot of good stuff going on," she says, highlighting in particular the efforts made to improve the industry's grim health and safety statistics. But she thinks that more could be done if the industry had a better idea of what it wanted to achieve.

"Companies are doing a lot, but it is not necessarily very joined up. They are doing it because it seems the right thing to do but it is not really adding anything to the business or the bottom line.
So, who is it that is driving the CSR agenda within the construction industry?

"At the moment, the industry is often responding to clients' needs as opposed to being leaders and innovators in terms of CSR," says Ms Cook.

"More is being asked by clients in all sectors, not just the construction sector. It is being driven by companies such as Marks & Spencer with its Plan A carbon neutral programme.

"It has made various commitments and it is passing that down the supply chain. If you cannot meet M&S's requirements, then you are not going to get on its framework contracts. That has a real impact on the bottom line of your business."

So, how should construction companies go about improving and measuring their CSR -performance?
"The first thing to do is to understand what is important to your business, what are its drivers. Once you have this focus on the issue, then you can measure what you are doing," she says.

"For a driver like the recruitment and retention of talented staff, it might mean looking at how you get a more diverse workforce because there is going to be strong competition for people who come from traditional sources.

"If you are recruiting more women, people from ethnic minorities or from non-traditional backgrounds, you need to know not only how many of them there are in the business but whereabouts they sit in the organisation," says Ms Cook.

It may be that companies can currently still win work without addressing the issue of CSR. But she warns against using this as an excuse for procrastination.

"There is a huge amount of work and companies are doing well. But in five years' time, there may be more of a fight for work.

"Working on these issues provides business with an opportunity to build their business, their brand and their reputation that will sustain their business in the long term."