CSR actions speak louder than words

Primark’s handling of the horrific Bangladesh factory collapse has not just been an example of crisis communications but a salutary lesson in the value of adopting a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

When a clothing factory collapsed in late April killing 350 people it was headline news around the world and UK retailer Primark, which sources garments from the site, was immediately associated with the disaster in the media.

A standard but genuine ‘shocked and saddened’ statement was issued by Primark’s press office and that’s traditionally where the PR response would have ended.

After all, what responsibility could Primark have for the deficiencies of the Bangladesh construction industry?

However, the disaster is a major challenge to Primark’s brand and a test for its CSR strategy – a timely reminder of the importance of CSR to consumers. Several major research projects have shown:

  • 29% of consumers believe social responsibility is important to purchasing (Ipsos MORI)
  • 75% of consumers believe it’s important companies take responsible actions (Gfk)
  • And a small but vocal 17% of consumers are highly concerned by organisations’ CSR commitments (GfK)

In recent years there has been a rush by many companies to adopt CSR strategies as a way of showcasing their green credentials. This approach misunderstands the true nature of CSR and can create a hostage to PR fortune.

Like many in the clothing industry Primark has been alive to the concerns of UK consumers who don’t want their bargain clothes produced in sweat shops by child labour. As a result the company has a very public CSR strategy promoting workers’ rights, women’s health, education and empowerment as well as improved environmental practices such as sustainable cotton.

The ethical trading section of their website sets out the company’s core principles that: ‘suppliers and factories must follow to ensure products are made in good working conditions and that the people making them are treated decently and paid a fair wage.’

Having been closely involved in the development and communication of many clients’ CSR strategies, it’s clear that Primark’s approach to CSR is well founded and thorough. As a result this disaster will be a true test of the company’s sincerity and effectiveness.

Primark has already said it will pay compensation and offer emergency food aid to victims of the Bangladesh factory collapse who worked for its supplier and provide for children who have lost their parents.

However it will need to go further. Helping rebuild the lives of those affected and the communities in which they live will be a long-term task that will require vision, investment and commitment. Primark will need to map out what it plans to do and report back on its achievements.

Whilst the disaster recovery operation is now over, the PR recovery operation is just getting underway.Failure to do so will open it up to charges that it has abandoned its workers from charities such as War On Want, which recently said firms who use Bangladeshi products must safeguard the lives of workers.

This disaster demonstrates the fundamental change in consumer attitudes. The majority now believe that businesses are responsible for standards throughout their supply chain.

To convince consumers that your brand is meeting their expectations requires a strategic understanding of, and a long-term commitment to CSR backed with real sincerity and passion.

Brands that fail to learn this lesson are fundamentally exposed and fail to appreciate the duty of care modern consumer expect from the brands they buy. 

Michael Bennett, managing director Pelican Communications.

Pelican Communications are specialists in the environmentfood and drinkoutdoor and leisure and packaging sectors and offer a range of services such as media relations, brand management, event management and people developmentContact us for marketing and communications expertise.