Can IT vendors make the world a better place?

TORONTO – There’s a formula Katherine Bohr uses to help companies assess whether their attempts at social responsibility make a difference or not, and she offered it to a group of IT executives on Thursday.

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 explained, 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 if the investments are going 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,” explained 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.”

According to research quoted by Illingworth, 92 per cent of Canadians said 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 added, 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, provided an overview of a GeSI project in Senegal, Africa, where a repair and recycling workshop is being set up to deal with end-of-life mobile phones. Some may be reused and provided to underprivileged groups, he said. Other machines may be turned into artwork.

GeSI is also trying to develop strategies to deal with climate change, creating a greenhouse gas reporting protocol that will harmonize the way accounting and reporting on such information is provided by companies. A greater use of videoconferencing and online collaborative software could reduce business travel, Dalpe added, which could also decrease the level of emissions in the atmosphere.

Social responsibility activities can involve the entire organization, but they can also be part of a program that engages and empowers employees, Bohr said. This is reflected in the rise of CSR-related job titles and the association of philanthropic or volunteer activity with key performance indicators, she said.

Microsoft Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont., runs its own “I Volunteer” program whereby employees are given 40 hours a year to dedicate to a cause of their choice. Gavin Thompson, Microsoft Canada’s director of community relations, said “I Volunteer” activities have ranged from sitting on boards of charities to field work in far-flung regions. Some take a piecemeal approach to their volunteer hours, he said, while many opt to take the entire work week. It’s a big change from Thompson’s time working at TD Canada Trust trying to implement a similar program.

“I had people coming to me saying they were going to their kid’s after-school soccer game, and wasn’t that volunteering?” he said, adding that those things don’t count at the software company. “Microsoft’s really nailed that one.”

This was the first year ITAC Ontario has hosted an event specificially devoted to CSR, and the association’s director of CSR Geoff MacDougall said he hoped it would spark an interest for further activity on the part of its members.

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