Responsible business 2.0: foundations for the future


Social sustainability meets the tech imperative

The successful organisations of the future are likely to be those that recognise the need to invest in digital skills and harness tech to better engage with their communities

Last year, the UK government laid out its National AI Strategy Action Plan, in which it defined artificial intelligence as a general-purpose technology akin to the steam engine, electricity or the internet.

In the few months since the likes of ChatGPT and Dall-E 2 hit the internet, generative AI’s already revolutionary impact has meant that businesses, governments and individuals need to be brought up to speed – and quickly. The pace of change is almost unprecedented, with industries from telecoms to retail and software all rapidly integrating AI features.

All of this arises against a backdrop of ominous headlines about how the evolving tech landscape will likely disrupt entire industries. A Goldman Sachs report earlier this year predicted that as many as 300 million full-time jobs could be affected by the oncoming tide of artificial intelligence. 

AI to help workers, not replace them

The reality on the ground is, however, nuanced. While some jobs may be at risk, others are benefiting from these advances, embracing the change rather than fighting against it. “AI is a co-pilot for your work rather than a replacement,” says Mike Butcher, founder of the not-for-profit organisation Techfugees.

Set up in 2015 during the Syrian refugee crisis as a way for the tech community to support forcibly displaced people worldwide, Techfugees brings together technology, skilled volunteerism and community action. “Modern refugees and displaced people are innovative and entrepreneurial,” says Butcher, highlighting that some of the biggest tech companies have been founded by immigrants and refugees.

But one thing that prevents refugees and other disadvantaged groups from progressing is a lack of resources - an issue that could be transformed by the newfound accessibility of artificial intelligence. Training and supporting people takes time and money, and experts believe AI can step in to play a significant role in upskilling groups who otherwise would have limited access to teachers.

In his article for the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates discusses AI’s potential impact in the healthcare field. He writes:AI-driven improvements will be especially important for poor countries, where the majority of under-5 deaths happen." 

“For example, many people in those countries never get to see a doctor, and AIs will help the health workers they do see be more productive... AIs will even give patients the ability to do basic triage, get advice about how to deal with health problems, and decide whether they need to seek treatment,” Gates argues.

People will be valued for their ability to learn

Others see tech as a way to create jobs rather than eliminate them. Peter Jensen is the CEO and chairman of vaccine research and development company Normax. He is spearheading a new community-based social network to support patients suffering from conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and long Covid. Jensen argues: “As an entrepreneur, I use tech to grow faster and hire more people.” He notes that the ubiquitous adoption of artificial intelligence could deliver significant productivity gains for organisations, freeing up precious time that employees could devote to supporting the company’s charitable commitments. 

As technology advances at breakneck speed, employers and workers will need to rethink their approach to learning skills. Social impact company WithYouWithMe, for example, was launched to plug the growing technical skills gap by providing free digital skills training and aptitude testing for underserved groups, such as military veterans, people with neurodiversity, indigenous communities and refugees.

“We believe the current hiring practice that centres on candidates’ past experience and education as a predictor of their future performance is flawed, especially for entry- to mid-level digital careers and skills,” says Tom Larter, WithYouWithMe’s CEO. “We see a future where people are valued on their ability to learn skills. That’s a far better predictor of future performance.”

Rather than taking a firing and hiring approach, the trick will be to invest in existing workers as skills requirements change at pace with oncoming tech developments.

“We are concerned that under an experienced-based hiring model, changes to the workforce driven by technology will have a negative effect; people will lose their jobs because we’re not rapidly adapting our workforce to take on those new technical roles,” says Larter. “I’m hopeful that under the skills-based hiring model, we can start to pivot our workforces and talent pools to meet that demand and lessen the negative ramifications of automation.”

Pressing forward, employers might not have a choice but to train staff on the job, given that skills acquired in conventional learning environments may quickly become redundant. 

“There’s no way that the traditional education system is ever going to keep up with the pace that people will need to reskill and upskill,” says Chibeza Agley, co-founder and CEO of Obrizum, a digital learning platform. “And even if organisations automate roles, if it’s easy for them to do, other organisations can automate as well, and then it becomes a race to the bottom. Companies have to start thinking about growth and innovation – and the human brain is still the best at doing that.”

The trick will be to invest in existing workers as skills requirements change at pace with oncoming tech developments

Technology can strengthen societies

Technology is also being used to help charities better connect with their communities. Cast (the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology), for example, is helping other civil society and social organisations better respond to how people are using digital tools and ensuring their services and support can reach those communities, says Cast director Dan Sutch.

Rather than thinking about tech purely as a means to reduce costs, automation that boosts efficiency and gives more time back to employees could enable companies to engage in new social initiatives to support local communities.

“How technology is used is really about the ownership and business models that surround the technology,” says Sutch. “If we allow things like AI to be driven by the desire to create shareholder value, which is an extractive process, then that’s going to be damaging for many people. But if we see the value of technology through community, then we can use it to create a better society.”

By embracing tech as a conduit for social good, organisations can build the platform and resources to reposition themselves within their communities as champions of social sustainability. 

“There is an opportunity for companies to start demonstrating their real purpose and their contribution to society beyond profit,” Sutch concludes. “Ultimately, it is about recognising that our communities are healthier and wealthier when people have time to connect with each other.”

The art of corporate charity partnerships

The new-school approach to giving looks at building a cluster of causes to maximise engagement and impact. So, how do companies find their perfect partners?

For the past 20 years, businesses have been asking Jonathan Andrews the same question: how do we choose the right charity partner? Andrews acts as a matchmaking service for companies and charities. “It sounds obvious, but businesses need to start by being clear about their goals,” he says. “A lot of businesses miss out this first step because working with charities has been solely about giving.” 

Corporate charity partnerships have evolved beyond businesses signing a giant cheque and posing for a photo opportunity. Many seek mutually beneficial arrangements with a handful of well-aligned organisations, which makes goal-setting a complex task. 

Where, then, should they start? “Businesses need to define their purpose, and then they should ask themselves what they want to achieve,” says Andrews. “Is it about increasing employee engagement? Do they want to have a social impact? Do they want a long-term partner?”

Information and communications technology company Fujitsu has made its goals crystal clear. The company targets two-year partnerships with charities that are aligned with its core values. It aims to deploy both parties’ unique skills and knowledge to enhance the beneficiaries’ and its own employees' lives. “We’re passionate about tackling social issues within the communities that the business operates,” says the company’s head of corporate charity partnerships, Craig Hall. “It’s not a box-ticking exercise; it's a chance to make a real difference.”

How partnerships can help communities

Once businesses know what challenges they want to solve, it’s time to start building a giving portfolio to achieve those aims.

A multi-layered strategy can give companies scope to address both timely challenges and ongoing social inequalities more broadly, driving support when and where it’s needed. And consideration should be given to weighting support for national organisations against local good causes, where the impact is often more immediately measurable. 

Marks and Spencer is an example of a major national retailer successfully integrating both approaches. Last winter, M&S focused its Christmas clothing and home campaign Gifts That Give to lend support across various social issues. The British retailer identified the overlap between its resources and the wider community’s needs in a process of ‘values matching’. Since 2015, more than 6,000 local good causes have benefited from M&S’s support. But the company balances this community-centred approach with a selection of national partnerships, recognising the significant role they can bring. Its partnership with Macmillan, for example, has raised more than £25m since 2010.

Building foundations for sustainability

It’s a similar story for Virgin Media O2. In 2021 it set up a Together Fund, worth £500,000, to support local charities and good causes as the nation emerged from the pandemic. Following a round of applications, 400 local causes were allocated a grant from the fund, with many recommendations coming from local employees who could offer accurate insight into the places and people who need help the most.

Virgin Media O2 also has an ongoing, three-year, £2m strategic partnership with the Good Things Foundation, one of the UK’s leading digital exclusion charities, which aims to improve people’s lives through digital. The foundation was the right fit to fulfil Virgin’s mission to reduce digital poverty via its national network of hyperlocal community groups that hold trust within communities.

Dana Haidan, Virgin Media O2’s chief sustainability officer, explains: “The partnership is perfectly aligned with what we do as a business and is directly connected to our purpose: to help get online and stay connected to the people and things they love. It’s also enabling us to offer targeted support to people in communities by offering free data via the National Databank – like a food bank but for free mobile data, texts and calls – and digital skills to people who need them across the UK.”

The relationship the brand has built with the Good Things Foundation also provides a template for other businesses in using charity partnerships to build a holistic, sustainable development strategy. Haidan continues: “It’s helping us to deliver the goals we have set out in our sustainability strategy, the Better Connections Plan, connecting 1 million digitally excluded people through free and affordable connectivity and services and improving the digital skills and confidence of 6 million people by the end of 2025.”

In 2023, corporate charity partnerships that are aligned with businesses’ core values and the role a company wants to play in society will be the focus. The future for collaborations that go on to deliver a useful legacy looks bright.

Commercial Feature

How younger generations are redefining corporate purpose

A new generation has entered the workforce, setting new expectations for employers. Will a company’s sense of social responsibility become a non-negotiable in the race to attract and retain talent?

Generation Z is entering the workforce with a different mindset from its predecessors. Not only have today’s graduates been raised in a digital world, making them far more tech-savvy than earlier cohorts, but their lives have also been shaped by constant disruption.

From government-imposed austerity programmes that have decimated community services to a global pandemic that was immediately followed by a fresh cost-of-living crisis, gen Z is entering the workforce with a stronger sense of social duty than many of their older peers. And with that, employers are being asked to raise their social responsibility game.  

“Gen Z is far more connected and much more resilient because of the experiences they’ve had in early life that have changed how people feel about their communities,” says Zoe Colosimo, chief operating officer at Neighbourly, a platform that connects businesses with small charities and community causes. “They have ingrained values around diversity and inclusion, and are very aware of climate breakdown, human rights and social inequalities because they’re so connected through their digital networks.”

The more you contribute, the more trust is generated, and many studies show that high-trust societies have much better economic outcomes

Giving locally builds trust

As a result, these values now feed into how young people vet potential employers. Companies need to have a clearly defined purpose to connect with this generation, according to Colosimo. While businesses know that consumers and employees are more inclined to support brands that display strong environmental, social and governance performance, scepticism around corporate altruism is rife. Often, the key for organisations to establish a purpose that people can get behind is to start by looking at how they can help the communities in which they operate.

An annual study by Neighbourly and YouGov shows that by investing in local communities and prioritising local charitable giving over national or international causes, companies can generate greater trust. About two-thirds of adults in the UK consistently say they are more trusting of a company which contributes to the community where they live and work.

“There is significant evidence that points to the fact that people prefer to shop with, spend money with, and favour brands that can prove they are purposeful and are contributing,” says Colosimo. “Our research shows that the extent to which businesses contribute locally is index-linked to how much we trust that business.”

For example, 63% of respondents in the most recent Neighbourly survey said they were more likely to trust a company that gave to a smaller local charity compared to 47% for a national charity. That figure drops to 31% for an international cause. 

There’s evidence to suggest that engaging with local charities also boosts employee wellbeing. Colosimo explains: “It helps employees feel connected to their community because they’re able to nominate and volunteer for charities that are meaningful to them, and they can see they are making an impact.”

Make conscious contributions that genuinely help

There are also potential negative consequences for businesses that don’t take their social obligations seriously.

“Companies that aren’t able to show that they are acting in a purposeful way risk not being able to attract younger talent who want to work for businesses that can prove they’re doing the right thing,” says Colosimo. “It will also have an impact on talent retention. Companies have to make sure the business is a place where people feel proud to work.”

While it doesn’t matter if companies are giving support through donations or volunteering, what is important is that companies listen to their communities and are genuine in their motives.

“What is essential is that it’s needs-led. This isn't about throwing stuff into the community; this is saying to the community, ‘What do you need?’ and making sure that your contribution is driven by what is being asked for,” says Colosimo. “It is also about the employee having a voice and being able to nominate causes that they care about as opposed to the old top-down corporate CSR tick-box approach.”

‘Businesses cannot survive in societies that fail’

As focus on ESG changes perceptions about the importance of creating socially sustainable businesses, even among shareholders and investors, and as gen Z advance in their careers as the corporate leaders of tomorrow, how companies think about profits in the future may look very different from today.

“It will be about community for profit,” Colosimo continues. “Companies will see the economic benefit of building trust, and the way to build it is to collaborate in a way that gives back so that the community can be self-sustaining. The more you contribute, the more trust is generated, and many studies show that high-trust societies have much better economic outcomes.”

For companies that are just starting on this journey, Colosimo says it is important to recognise that not all charitable giving is equal.

“We’re not saying you should switch off your national charitable programmes. We’re saying businesses should think consciously about how they’re contributing. If you’re able to help build sustainable communities, your business can have a material benefit on the society that it operates in,” she says. “As former Unilever CEO Paul Polman said, ‘Businesses cannot survive in societies that fail.’ So if businesses can give back in a way that is meaningful and that helps sustain those communities, then it’s good for business.”

Community ties: why we trust companies that give locally

Businesses that support causes closer to home are sending a powerful message: 'we care'. And people are paying attention

Five metrics to determine environmental and social impact

With more evidence showing that sustainability and corporate social responsibility are linked to corporate success, figuring out how to measure performance is businesses’ next challenge

The Air Ambulance Service works with dozens of partners on joint ESG frameworks, which see corporate workers raising funds for the charity, providing mentoring to staff, and even volunteering in charity shops around the UK. 

Many of these partnerships run for multiple years because they don’t only help the charity but also drive value for the businesses, says Jo Payne, national partnerships manager at the Air Ambulance Trust. “Measuring the impact of partnerships means that our partners see positive results from ESG, and that means they are more likely to support us in the longer term,” she says.

Putting a number on the impact of these frameworks isn’t easy, particularly when businesses are trying to quantify the success of social initiatives and the extent to which they benefit employees and local communities. So, what KPIs should organisations prioritise to capture and track ESG benefits? And how will measuring them support broader business goals? 

Organisations that focus on sustainability often adopt more efficient processes, reducing waste and driving greater efficiency
01 Environmental measures

One of the easiest KPIs to use when assessing ESG initiatives is to consider the impact on carbon footprint, says Anna Stanley, head of ESG with consulting group Factotum. “Carbon footprinting is extremely well understood, and there are online tools that will calculate the carbon footprint of many activities, making it a widely adopted KPI,” she points out. 

Beyond basic carbon footprint measures, corporates can measure other environmental metrics such as energy use in offices, or carbon emissions associated with business travel and remote working, adds Stanley. Tracking this data can provide insights that help companies spot ways to reduce carbon emissions and costs, whether that’s identifying the most carbon-efficient mode of business travel or identifying surplus equipment that can be redistributed, reducing carbon emissions and recycling costs. “Environmental KPIs are about being conscious of the impact that can be measured and then taking steps to minimise those things,” Stanley says. 

In practice, understanding and improving environmental KPIs can lead to higher revenues. When Unilever launched a new dishwashing liquid that used less water than other brands, sales of the new liquid and other Unilever water-saving brands outperformed the sector by 20%. 

02 Engagement measures

A major source of value created by ESG initiatives is higher levels of satisfaction and engagement among employees. Payne argues that collaboration is crucial; nurturing relationships across functions can bolster learning and engagement in both directions. She notes: “Having a CEO and a more junior employee working together side by side can translate into real benefits.”

And if businesses really want to get to the bottom of how their employees feel, ask them, Payne suggests. Organisations shouldn’t underestimate the value of employee surveys which consolidate concrete data on employee sentiment. Following a push to provide grassroots charities with access to funding and volunteers to deliver local planting and environmental initiatives, Coca-Cola followed up to test the temperature of its ESG initiatives with staff. Employee surveys revealed that 100% of employees enjoyed the experience of volunteering, and their sentiment towards the company was rated as 9 out of 10 as a result. 

Longer term, tracking KPIs around sentiment and engagement makes it easier to identify existing or potential improvements to staff turnover, cost of recruitment and even productivity. “Those are all things that partners tell us they see in their organisation,” says Payne.

03 Supply chain measures

Traditional supply chain KPIs such as speed of delivery or reliability aren’t going anywhere. But businesses are growing more mindful of metrics that reflect the full value of ESG strategies. Environmental pollution, consumption of natural resources, and health and safety incidents, to name a few, are becoming essential considerations as consumers, employees and shareholders all lean harder into ethical decision-making. 

Tracking these seemingly ‘purpose-over-profit’ outcomes could also mean avoiding costly disruptions and the potential negative reputational and financial fallout that comes with poor management of environmental and social matters across the supply chain. 

04 Social value measures

A recent survey by Accenture found that 62% of consumers want corporations to take a stand on issues such as sustainability, transparency and fair employment, while the EY Future Consumer Index found that consumers are more loyal to brands that display robust ESG principles. It’s clear that companies that can demonstrate a positive impact on society reap the rewards. The question is, how do businesses measure the social value of ESG initiatives when making a difference in society is often intangible? 

Transparency is a good jumping-off point, according to Jamie Palmer, founder of Social Supermarket. The company sells promotional merchandise to businesses with a focus on positive social impact and has developed its own reporting tool to track the social benefit of products. Social Supermarket reinforces trust by sharing that report with its customers breaking down KPIs, including the number of female and minority-led businesses in the supply chain, hours of employment generated, and supply chain diversity. 


05 Financial measures

Research from the University of Oxford and investment management company Arabesque Partners showed that 88% of companies with more robust ESG practices experienced an enhanced operational performance, while 80% saw better stock price performance. Elsewhere, McKinsey found that effective ESG strategies can affect operating profits by as much as 60%. 

The reason? Organisations that focus on sustainability often adopt more efficient processes, reducing waste and driving greater efficiency. At the same time, customers’ buying habits are increasingly influenced by ESG principles, so companies with strong ESG credentials stand to strengthen customer loyalty and advocacy.

In theory, organisations should therefore be able to track the value of ESG by assessing financial KPIs such as process efficiency, waste costs, customer loyalty, sales, and even operating profits and share price performance. As companies continue to invest in bettering their businesses, they’re likely to find that it pays to deliver on the promise of doing environmental and social good. 

Ben Edwards Alec Fenn Sally Whittle
Ben Edwards A freelance journalist specialising in finance, business, law and technology with more than a decade of editorial and commercial writing experience.
Sally Whittle Journalist and features writer, covering business and internet technologies, contributing to titles such as Computing and InformationWeek.