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Testing social responsibilities

The invitation to be a part of the jury of the sustainable development trophies of the EdF (Electricite de France) Group came as a surprise. The invitation letter mentioned that the sustainable development trophies is an internal competition held throughout the group with an aim to promoting the employees' involvement in sustainability initiatives around five major issues.

These issues are: Care for customers and local communities, climate change, energy efficiency, environmental protection and biodiversity and social responsibilities.

Arriving in Paris on the March 19 to actually assess submissions on this competition was an even more surprising and an extremely pleasant experience.

The EdF group comprises at least six business verticals and employs a work force of over 160,000 people, with a major concentration across various countries in Europe.

On the final jury day, a shortlist of 50 projects (from a total of 538 submissions from across the group) were put up to nine different committees for selecting two projects from each committee as the winners - totalling to about 18 winning projects.

Each jury comprised between six and eight members making a total of approximately 60 jury members drawn from the senior management of various group companies and other international members such as myself. Each team presenting their submissions had two members who spent 40 minutes with the jury committee in an extremely well choreographed process - complete with power point presentations and a well documented compilation of all submissions - which was a delight to participate in.

The above statistics and detailing of the process is merely to give the readers of this column an idea of the scale and commitment of the EdF group to internalising and encouraging the sustainability considerations within the organisation, both at an individual level as well as at the company level.

As the presentations began, it was clear that several of the submissions gave due consideration to the triple bottom line considerations in sustainable business design strategies, that is, environment, business and social impacts. The range of innovative and out-of-box initiatives that tied the different pillars of sustainability together, across both developing and developed countries, served as an eye opener.

One project worked with local communities to extend support to those struggling with debt and fuel poverty while at the same time promoting energy efficiency and reducing the dues for the utility company.

Another developed a partnership with a well known charitable organisation in order to leverage their services to provide support to vulnerable customers during back-out periods - thereby demonstrating great sensitivity and greatly enhancing the positive reputational impact for the company amongst its customers.

Many more such examples could be cited. The crux of the experience, however, is that not only are these initiatives replicable across the group but these innovative opportunities to integrate a business into the communities they operate in could possibly never have been sighted from the top - these had to be initiated driven from the grassroots level within the organisation.

The ministry of corporate affairs has issued voluntary guidelines for corporate social responsibility (CSR) for India's businesses.

This is a very encouraging document that provides a lot of room for businesses to define their own CSR implementation strategies in their own operating contexts. The EdF example illustrates how such CSR initiatives can, and probably must, go beyond companies to the employees within the company.

Also positive about the guidelines is an explicit recognition of corporate social responsibility within the company as well as CSR towards the society in which a business is embedded.

The important take-away from the above experience is that the specific amounts to be earmarked for CSR activities as per the guidelines can either be seen as money that needs to be spent to be in compliance with government guidelines or as a means for encouraging innovation and bringing about societal transformations towards sustainability.

Finally, it needs to be noted that the winners of the above competition are not given cash prizes or freebies of any kind. They are, instead, encouraged and facilitated in taking their message and learning across and outside the organisation through films (in which the team is the cast), participation in conferences/seminars and invited lectures!

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