TORONTO ­- There’s a formula Katherine Bohr uses to help companies assess whether their attempts at social responsibility make a difference or not

It goes something like this: corporate social responsibility (CSR) minus human resources (HR) equals little more than a public relations (PR) exercise. The point of CSR – HR = PR, Bohr said, is that investing in the communities that support their products and services shouldn’t be an add-on for technology vendors, and that their employees need to be engaged for investments to pay off.

Bohr, the director of member development at non-profit firm Corporate Business Social Responsibility (CBSR) in Vancouver, was among the keynote speakers at a half-day session on CSR hosted by ITAC Ontario. She used the example of Shell, whose management team worried about falling share prices and loss of business following oil spills in Nigeria. That didn’t happen, she said, but there was an unexpected side effect.

“Employees were ashamed to come into work,” Bohr said. “When you think about the fact that you’re working eight hours a day, people want to feel connected from a values standpoint.”

While the need to demonstrate corporate social responsibility cuts across the business community, several issues pertain specifically to the IT industry around environmental stewardship, labour practices and the digital divide. Ka-Hay Law, a CBSR advisor who also spoke at the conference, said the business case for taking part in such activies include reputation management, customer loyalty, licence to operate and employee retention.

“We’ve got both the carrot and the stick,” said Jay Illingworth, vice-president of the Electronic Products Stewardship Canada, a non-profit based in Ottawa that looks at sustainable product management and disposal practices. “The stick is the legislation that’s coming to the forefront, but the carrot is the emergence of the green consumer.”

A questionable manner

Illingworth said 92 per cent of Canadians say they would prefer to make purchases from companies that act in a socially responsible manner. This is part of what fuels his team’s mission to eliminate the IT waste that comes from dumping old PCs and printers in landfills. Although this represents only two per cent of the solid waste stream in Canada, Illingworth said the potential for toxicity should raise the level of concern. About 100,000 pieces of IT hardware reach end of life each year, he said, only 11 per cent of which is recycled, and even then the recycling is sometimes done in a questionable manner.

The problem is not merely raising awareness among the big box-makers, Illingworth said. Fifty per cent of the Canadian PC market comes from white box manufacturers, and 17 per cent of all disposed computers are “orphaned,” meaning they were created by companies that have since gone out of business. Someone needs to step up to the plate and take action on these products too, he said.

Bell Canada is among the companies looking at e-waste as part of an over-arching project called the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). Francois Dalpe, associate director of the environment at Bell Canada, said the GeSI project in Senegal, Africa, is setting up a repair and recycling workshop to deal with end-of-life mobile phones.

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