Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Are companies taking their eyes off the prize?

November 2009

There are more awards in the CSR field than ever before, yet there’s a sense that interest in them is waning. EP examines whether their heyday is coming to an end

Buy a bag of Percol coffee and its marketing will assail you with talk of exotic aromas and fairtrade commitments. Accompanying the packaging blurb, you’ll also find a Big Tick logo.

As an Ethical Performance reader, you’ll most likely get the reference. Big Ticks are reserved for the UK’s most ethical companies. They are peer assessed and given out by the UK membership group Business in the Community (Bitc) at plush black-tie events every year. Their stated aim is to honour those that have ‘shown innovation, creativity and sustained commitment to corporate responsibility’.

Percol has won a Big Tick every year for the last five years. The recognition represents just one of the 27 awards currently weighing down its trophy cabinet. The company is right to be proud, and to tell its consumers about it.

But how does such information go down with the average consumer? And how well is the Big Tick brand known outside niche corporate responsibility circles?

In today’s tough times, these are just some of the questions that award contenders are having to ask themselves. Winning a Big Tick is not easy. A company needs to have a stellar project in place. That goes without saying. But being responsible is just the beginning.

Applicants need to attend an ‘awards’ workshop’, collect extensive qualitative and quantitative data about their performance, and put together a detailed application. The whole process can take some companies up to a year, says Bitc award manager Claire Brady.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that CSR competitions are beginning to lose their sheen. The most concrete example comes from accountancy body Acca, which recently suspended its UK awards for annual corporate sustainability reports.

Acca’s head of sustainability Rachel Jackson admits that there wasn’t sufficient uptake to make the awards meaningful this year. Due to this ‘unexpected circumstance’, Acca has resolved to review whether or not to continue with its awards scheme next year. Whatever the outcome, 2009 will be the first time in many years that no one walks away with the prestigious Acca reporter’s award.

But that doesn’t mean the era of CSR awards is dead. There are still business benefits to be gleaned from a moment on the podium. Many award winners report that winning awards boosts employee morale.

External audiences can also be impressed, as Percol clearly hopes. Taking the top prize can bring a company to the attention of a large buyer or cement existing supply relationships. The same positive impact can be true for media coverage too.  

Awards can also feed a sense of peer pressure. Aron Cramer, president of the US-based business network Business for Social Responsibility, says: ‘While awards are imperfect, they do foster competition. This leads companies to reconsider their strategies, sometimes serving as a lever to create improvements.’

All the benefits, of course, depend on the legitimacy and prestige of an award. There are now at least 37 national sustainability business awards in the UK alone. This excludes the plethora of regional and industry-specific competitions now out there. Not all boast the robust criteria necessary to build external credibility. That in turn reduces the value they deliver to the winners. Not to mention the losers.
The awards’ market is ‘extremely saturated’, points out Jackson. As with any mature market, a rationalization of CSR competitions can be expected in the coming years. Large corporations are already cherry-picking the most prestigious awards and ignoring the rest. Competitions such as the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise or the Sunday Times’ Best Green Companies award can be expected to remain. Others will fall by the wayside.   

And CSR awards are not just engaged in a battle among themselves. Arguably, the indexes now catering for socially responsible investors deliver equal, if not better, value. Would a company prefer to be cited as top-in-class in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, for example, or win a Dragon Award from the Lord Mayor of London? Before, it wasn’t necessary to choose between the two. With today’s resource pressures, it is.

Competitors represent one side of the award coin. But there is another side that is important, yet often overlooked: the competition organiser. Behind most awards stands a non-profit organization, membership body or public agency. All hope that an award will help promote better practice and raise awareness of the responsibility agenda.

Acca has faced up to the need to move on. The accountancy body now seeks to get its message across through topical breakfast seminars for high-level executives. It is also preparing a series of papers on key sustainability issues for accountancy students, the future of the profession.

Neither may be as exciting as carrying home a trophy. But their impact on changing corporate behaviour could well be longer lasting. And that, ultimately, is the biggest prize of all.

UK & NI Ireland | Awards

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