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Who stands to gain most from corporate social responsbility?

By Benny Kung and Antonia Wong


It is a Sunday and at the International Commerce Centre in Kowloon, a group of staff from a Swiss investment bank is back at the office. They are not here for a board meeting or to work overtime. Rather, they are here to conduct a workshop organised by a Hong Kong NGO called Enrich, on budgeting and financial planning for foreign migrant workers, most of them domestic helpers.

At another time and in another part of town, some students arrive at a Maxim’s bakery at closing time to take bags of surplus bread to a charity drop-off point where it will be distributed to the needy. The Bread Run is a programme run by Feeding Hong Kong.

These are just some of the corporate social responsibility, or CSR, initiatives in which local and international companies in Hong Kong participate. CSR has become a buzzword in recent years. Most big companies have dedicated staff and even departments working on CSR. They strike partnerships with non-government organisations (NGOs), draw up CSR strategies and organise activities and events.

The Standard Chartered Marathon, Hang Seng Bank “Leaders to Leaders” Lecture Series and the Maxim’s Group Surplus Bread Donation Programme are some of the events and programmes the Hong Kong public is familiar with. The most common impression people have of CSR is that it is a kind of philanthropy or charity. They are less familiar with the history and the rationale behind the concept of CSR.

The Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, an annual event most Hong Kong people are familiar with
The Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, an annual event most Hong Kong people are familiar with

Discussion about what social responsibilities businesses had beyond their legal responsibilities developed in the 1960s and in the 1970s the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations began to draw up codes in response to the growth of corporate globalisation. Together these sought to set the rules for corporate behaviour and foreign investment and to regulate corporate abuse.

But it was not until the 1990s that CSR began to really take off and spawned an industry of consultants and experts. Throughout the 1980s, multinational corporations were hit by bad publicity and boycotts over such issues as the destruction of natural habitats, investing in apartheid South Africa and exploitative labour practices. The anti-corporate backlash reached a peak when the oil company Shell was accused of complicity in the Nigerian government’s execution of activists who had been campaigning against the petroleum industry’s destruction of their homeland.

The damage to Shell’s reputation, brand and therefore their bottom line, alerted the business community to the importance of taking steps to repair and build relations with the communities where they work and operate, with their customers, their workers and other “stakeholders”. The company spent the equivalent of HK$260 million on a public relations campaign to rebuild its reputation, which included community engagement activities and the production of a CSR report.

According to the CSR Guide for SMEs in Hong Kong, published by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and CSR Asia, there are five other aspects to CSR besides community involvement, namely corporate governance, environmental protection, human corporate management, responsible procurement and consumer issues.