Home Associations CSR: The Infinite Monkey Theorem
Steven Jones

Steven Jones

Corporate Social Responsibility: The Infinite Monkey Theorem by Steven Jones,  Vice President Propeller Club,  Liverpool

If you gather 150 people in a room and ask them what Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) means for shipping, it is likely you will get many varied answers. But just like giving enough monkeys sufficient time and typewriters and getting the collected works of Shakespeare, eventually you may find some useful answers emerge.

For the 4th year running, US events company Capital Link recently gathered a collection of the great and good of the industry together in London to tackle the issue of CSR. Trying to find and develop best practice, pointing those who may be floundering in the right direction and gently reminding those gathered that shipping is in the spotlight and needs to step up.

With an incredible line up of speakers, panellists and guests, the event was clearly quite a draw. From owners, managers, Classification Societies to lawyers – and across so many levels of the shipping strata, all came together to learn, debate, and perhaps develop their own notions of what it means to operate their company in line with the increasing demands of society, the law and investors.

For some, CSR is about the need to be nice, some to protect the environment, while others roll their eyes, catch up on emails and wait to be told what it should mean to them and of how they will make more money from it.

The very concept of CSR in shipping is perhaps as nebulous as the concept of the shipping industry itself.  We all work in shipping, but the roles we have, the business services we provide often run such a wide gamut that trying to apply catch-all concepts and one-size-fits-all approaches only serve to weaken the journey towards a sustainable, conscientious and proud industry.

Ships moving cargoes, seafarers operating ships, managers ashore overseeing the process, executives making decisions, moneymen throwing cash around, and insurers soaking up the risks…all have very differing challenges and perceptions. However diverse though, we need a route forward, and Capital Link thankfully provided some cause for hope and inspiration to get the ball rolling.

One of the repeated messages which emerged was that shipping has a dreadful track record with public relations. It was stressed that unfortunately people only switch on to shipping when the worst happens – oil spills, loss of life, disaster and mayhem. Like a bad movie the global audience only awakes when drama grabs them.

Alas it is so difficult to paint the real picture, to get the positive message out because people do not really care. Modern society is used to miracles, no-one gasps at television or phones, the space race was won, and there is a feeling that little is truly impossible. In the face of that, it seems only sensible that 90% of trade moves by ship – so what is the story? What is so amazing for the general populous?

That is the real challenge, to communicate that the actual day-to-day movement of so many goods is a modern miracle. That every cargo delivered is a victory over adversity, and a vital building block of modern life.

So the challenge of delivering on the technical and operational aspects of shipping remain, but so too do the need to communicate the real value of shipping, and that has to be told with a parallel reality of an honest effort to apply the base tenets of CSR.

To really engage with the concept of CSR is the first hurdle. The challenge “to care enough to care enough” is about a corporate leap of faith. One in which the bottom line becomes about more than money alone. Shifting from fixating on Pound signs to the “3 P’s” of sustainable business remains the vital key to developing and embracing CSR.

A business which looks to “People, Planet and Profit”, is one that will go beyond survival. It will be capable of thriving in the new commercial landscape of the future as transparency, accountability and reputation matter ever more. Legislators, investors, politicians, and clients, all demand more, and a foundation of good, honest and realistic CSR will be vital.

How though, It was asked, can a company deliver on the demands of so many potential pressure points? Which people does it need to focus on, what elements of saving the planet, and how with all that going on can it safeguard, let alone grow, its profits?

For a long time one of the real problems was that there was no definition of CSR – there was just a gut-feeling, and that would differ from company to company. Some companies looked to build on the traditional philanthropic models of the past, some looking to more modern views of sustainability.

Without even the foundation of a recognised definition it was stressed that it would be hard for those companies who aspired to do better to perhaps find the shape and scope of improvement needed. Then along came the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) with the first standard definition, “ISO 26000 – Social responsibility”

According to ISO, businesses do not operate in a vacuum. Their relationship to the society and environment in which they operate is a critical factor in their ability to continue to operate effectively. It is also increasingly being used as a measure of their overall performance.

ISO 26000 provides guidance on how businesses and organisations can operate in a socially responsible, ethical and transparent way that contributes to the health and welfare of society. Though this is not a certificate which can be gained and hung on a wall, it is a mantra which can be adhered too.

That is quite a leap for shipping companies, especially those who do not have to prescribe to shareholder and stock exchange demands. For listed companies, the need to think in this way has been apparent far longer. Reputation is crucial when the share price can wax and wane, and so they have worked hard to develop the principles of CSR. Even if there is still work to be done to deliver on the promises, it is not enough to simply stay legal and pay out dividends, they have to strive for more. But at least most listed shipping companies are over the CSR start line.

For the rest of the industry things are a lot more complicated, fragmented, confused and challenging. Shipping has created, over centuries, the mechanisms to insulate and isolate risk by transferring the impact of things which can go wrong through insurance. That works for clear cut tangible issues, but where the risk is a hazy, esoteric requirement to do “good”, well that is hard to lay at someone else’s door.

Companies are being forced to act, to step up and to do the right thing. So we have a situation in which many are striving, but are they delivering and are they really even benefitting?

At its core the concept of CSR is to move above what would be required to operate legally. Not polluting, not killing or injuring employees, and not making life worse for the people who come into contact with the company are obvious and existing moral, legal and ethical duties. CSR is about going above and beyond, finding the ways in which not only does the company do no harm, it actually strives to do good.

No-one pretends that businesses are automatically set up for the challenges of shifting from grabbing profit and opportunity into hugging the world is a massive leap for some. It was stressed that vision, courage and willingness are essential components of any business stepping up and moving forward.

The rewards are there though, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary General Emeritus, Mr Mitropoulos stated that shipping needs to be guided by its social and moral compass to deliver on the needs of the world, and for demands of business.

So the time has come for shipping to take a bearing and to set course for a future with CSR at its core.


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