INSIGHT: Sustainability or CSR - is it all just good PR?

Author: Nigel Davis


By Nigel Davis

Seeking sustainabilityLONDON (ICIS)--Some chemical companies simply get on with it while others like to talk more openly about what they do – in a closely managed way, of course.

The two approaches are reflected in producers’ attitudes towards public relations and towards sustainability and sustainability reporting. Particularly in the west, some have embraced sustainability openly; even going to great lengths to produce good looking and, they think, persuasive financial and sustainability reports. Others simply do not bother.

These differences have to do with history, ownership and cultural differences, Eric Johnson of Atlantic Consulting suggests in his book ‘Sustainability in the Chemical industry’, published earlier this year by Springer. But it doesn’t mean that they operate in different ways.

Johnson has amassed the data and considered chemical producers’ attitudes towards sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and public relations. Not everyone will be welcome his conclusions: that sustainability reporting is just PR in another form. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. The chemical industry has never attracted the most welcome attention. And it can do with all the friends it can get.

Johnson’s analysis shows that of the 29 largest chemical companies, some key petrochemical players, including LyondellBasell, INEOS, Formosa Plastic and Kuwait Petroleum, show little or no interest in sustainability, at least in a public sense. They continue to perform in a safe and effective manner but they have not been seduced by the attraction of talking more openly about what they do.

“In industry in general and in chemicals in particular, the word ‘sustainability’ is used interchangeably with labels such as ‘corporate social responsibility’; ‘corporate responsibility’ and ‘corporate citizenship’,” Johnson says. “The old-fashioned term for it, ‘public relations’ is avoided, although the new-fashioned variant, ‘stakeholder relations’ is sometimes used.”

Companies want to build or maintain public goodwill, he adds, and avoid public ill-will. “The public has been re-defined as ‘stakeholders’ and now explicitly include the industry’s employees and investors,” he says.

But what is sustainability or CSR really for? There is no evidence suggesting that firms who say they practice CSR are better environmental performers or are safer than those who do not. But a ‘softer’ public approach often helps to allay public fears and, importantly, boost employee confidence. In Johnson’s view, good CSR can make a company a more attractive employer. “Many of today’s brightest and best want to work for responsible companies,” he says.

Sustainability, however, has become something of an ill-defined fad that threatens the steps that companies make to build trust.

Many chemical processes are inherently unsafe, so companies are right to be proud of their safety – and usually as a result – their environmental record.

Chemical producers have some difficult concepts and facts to get across if they adopt the CSR or sustainability reporting route but if they understand their audience and do it right then talk can be better than confrontation.

One of Johnson’s main suggestions is that companies should be more, not less, forthcoming about the inherent dangers of the industry. Over time, he says, the image as a safe pair of hands in a dangerous sector has faded and hardly registers in the industry’s sustainability reporting.

Perhaps it should. Chemical companies should fixate upon safety in the way they used to. Johnson says. “Part of the message here is that if society wants chemicals it must accept responsibility for them. Not to absolve the industry of all responsibility but to share among its beneficiaries.”

Many people working in the chemical industry would agree with that.

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