Social responsibility has gained widespread attention, with major corporations spending untold amounts to prove their commitment to the environment, community, shareholders and employees.
Last week, General Electric Co. released its first social responsibility report, called, ``Our Actions.''
The company said the report highlights GE's performance, progress and challenges in numerous areas, including compliance and governance; globalization; community investment; the environment, health and safety; products and research and development; and of course, GE's commitment to employees and other stakeholders.
We applaud GE for releasing such a report. We support the role of companies in improving society at every level possible and giving back. At Plastics News, community involvement is one of the many criteria we use to evaluate nominees for our Processor of the Year award.
But companies can't give back if they themselves aren't healthy. And so the phrase ``social responsibility'' ignites the timeless debate: Is a company's responsibility to make a profit or to serve society? And if a company is too focused on being socially responsible, does it ultimately harm its ability to make a profit?
It's easy to get caught up in the hype. At the Global Reporting Initiative, www.globalreporting.org, you can even take a 10-question quiz, ``Are you a GRI whiz?'' The Amsterdam, Netherlands-based group's primary mission is to ``elevate sustainability reporting practices worldwide,'' and it says its guidelines are for voluntary use by organizations worldwide for reporting on economic, environmental and social dimensions of their activities, products and services. It boasts an impressive list of organizational stakeholders, including GE, Ford Motor Co., Hewlett-Packard and Bayer AG.
To give you an idea of what it was like to take the quiz, I scored 70 percent, prompting the site to label me a GRI expert, and that was without fully reading each question.
We're not going to open the ``profit vs. social commitment'' topic here for debate, but encourage companies to strike a balance that's right for them, whether they have $2 million in sales or $2 billion. No matter the firm's size, it goes without saying that officials always should conduct business in an ethical manner and focus on areas such as the health and safety of workers.
For instance, we trust that you won't offer a free-beer policy to your employees in place of a dental plan; and it's likely you haven't tried to impersonate a hippie just to sink a Greenpeace boat.
We'll leave that to C. Montgomery Burns, the personification of evil capitalism on The Simpsons, whose quest for the almighty greenback is summed up in one of his most famous lines: ``One dollar for eternal happiness? I'd be happier with the dollar.''
But therein lies the truth. The first order of business, above all, is to make money. Keeping your eye on the ball yields the essential long-term results that make giving possible. As business travelers, we all know the rule on a plane, that if you need oxygen, you are to help yourself first before giving help to another passenger.
We have our own examples of successful philanthropists in the plastics industry, of course. Take, for instance, Jon Huntsman Sr., the founder and chairman of Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp. Huntsman in 1970 started the firm with his brother. Now, the company has gone public and has annual sales of more than $12 billion.
Huntsman is a billionaire philanthropist who donated $225 million to establish the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. He has given millions to help rebuild Armenia, in addition to other philanthropic endeavors. In a new book, Huntsman emphasizes returning favors and good fortune by helping those who are less fortunate.
But Huntsman's ability to give would have been compromised had he not focused first on building a successful, profitable company.
Because it's GE's report that ignited the idea for this column, we'll borrow some wisdom from Jack Welch's latest book, Winning. Welch talks about addressing a question at a breakfast meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark. The question was, ``I'm about to be transferred to run our operations in west Africa, and I've been told to expect that 40 percent of my workforce have AIDS or a family member suffering with the disease. Any suggestions for dealing with this problem?''
That's an extreme example, but it's timely. Welch wrote, ``The manager who asked this question worked for a highly profitable oil company, and I could feel that he really wanted to do something. He'll be able to because his company is winning. He can launch programs to educate the workforce about AIDS. He can provide medical facilities and subsidize the expensive drugs the disease requires. He can really improve the lives of hundreds of people.''
Companies, small or large, have to give on their level and never lose sight of the goal to build a solid foundation that recognizes profitability as the essential ingredient to future success. After all, one could make the argument that a company's first commitment to a community is maintaining its ability to provide jobs in the first place.
Angie DeRosa is a Plastics News staff reporter based in Oklahoma City.