How can business ‘give back’ to society?

In earning and keeping a ‘social licence to operate,’ one size does not fit all.

 
(Photo: Comstock/Getty Images)

A recent Vancouver Sun story quotes Fred Green, CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway, as saying that he won’t sacrifice safety in pursuit of profits. In his words, he won’t violate the terms of his company’s unwritten ‘social licence’ to operate.

The notion of a ‘social licence to operate’ reflects the notion that in order for a business to be successful, in the long run, the support and goodwill of society is essential. This includes everything from the willingness of a local community to walk into your store to buy things, to the willingness of neighbours to put up with the noise of your trucks driving past, to the willingness of the people’s duly elected representatives to pass the kinds of legislation that make modern commerce possible.

This raises the question: just how does a company earn, and maintain, its social licence to operate? How, in other words, can—or should—a business show its gratitude, or pay its debt to society?

There are a number of ways, and they are not mutually exclusive.

One option is through charitable donations. Corporate philanthropy is as old as the hills, but is generally pooh-poohed by proponents of modern CSR, who instead favour things like collaborative efforts to build local skills and capacity.

Another way is by paying special attention to social impacts, beyond what is required by law. For example: selling junk food is perfectly legal, and arguably fully ethical, at least on a case-by-case basis. But a food seller that looks to the aggregate social consequences of its junk-food sales, and tries to mitigate negative impacts, might be said to be doing so as part of its social licence to operate.

Another way is by paying its taxes. That might seem trivial, a mere matter of following the law. But given the complexity of the tax code, the number of loopholes, and the size of some companies’ accounting departments, a commitment to paying your fair share is probably non-trivial.

Another way a company can earn and keep its social license to operate is by a commitment to looking for ‘win-wins.’ In this category, we could place various efforts at seeking energy efficiency and waste reduction. Of the many ways a company can look to save money, some are socially valuable, and opting to pursue those over others might be seen as supportive of a company’s social licence.

And finally, there’s the old (and true) point made by Milton Friedman years ago, which is that companies contribute socially by making goods and services that people want. What does Merck ‘give back?’ It gives us pharmaceuticals that relieve pain and suffering. What does BP contribute? It finds and refines the oil without which our economy would literally grind to a halt. What does my local coffee shop do for the community? It provides a place to get in out of the rain, have a cup of coffee, and chat with a friend.

Now it’s quite likely that no one of these is sufficient. Each of them is a plus, and counts towards a company’s social licence, but likely some combination is necessary. From this range of options, each company chooses how it thinks it can best earn and keep its social licence to operate. Different mixes will make sense for different companies in different industries. There’s no one right combination that will let a company merit its social licence.

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