Interview by Tom Idle
Hans Daems, the newly elected chair of CSR Europe, couldn’t have chosen a more pertinent time to take up the position with the business network. Daems, who is also the group public affairs director at Hitachi Europe, will lead the organisation during an important year in its development – with youth unemployment, human rights and sustainable cities very much front of mind for the collective of some 50 corporate members and 45 national CSR organisations, gathering the thoughts and views of almost 10,000 companies.
Tom Idle: Remind us of the purpose of CSR Europe
Hans Daems: It was originally created through the European Commission to raise awareness of CSR and to share best practice on how businesses can create positive impact. It has now become an independent body that brings together large businesses, as well as companies that are organised at a national level. For example, in the UK, Business in the Community (BITC) is a part of our network.
Our purpose is to enhance understanding and provide learning opportunities for those working in CSR within their companies so that they can improve business process. Part of this is enabling companies to work together to better understand how to integrate CSR into their business.
TI: And it’s also about encouraging collaboration within the network – which is easier said than done. How are you doing this?
HD: We organise workshops and events and our expertise lies in bringing people together.
For example, we recently enabled 11 of the big players in the automotive Industry to work together in finding a common approach to supply chain sustainability.
CSR Europe is now a unique Europe-wide platform, renowned by fostering high quality exchange and discussions. We have the ability to connect the dots to create a more advanced and interactive environment for businesses to collaborate to deal with today’s challenges together. No company should be under any illusion that they can find solutions on their own.
TI: What risks are posed by the UK’s decision to leave the EU to overall CSR policy and legislation?
HD: Well, there’s two ways of looking at it. The societal challenges that businesses are confronted with are not linked to any one country and they call for a collaborative approach. Things like climate change and migration are very complex issues. And I think sustainability will remain an area where the UK will continue to collaborate with the rest of Europe to find solutions.
However, businesses will require standardisation of policy and a level of predictability. The UK has always been a leader on the sustainability agenda and it will be interesting to see how that evolves.
TI: Of course, there’s a big difference between the leadership shown by business and that of governments when it comes to sustainability. How do you assess the current state of play by governments in encouraging companies to be more sustainable?
HD: There has to be the right balance between regulation and creating a climate where governments and policymakers can work with business.
If you take something like dealing with sustainability in global supply chains, there is a real opportunity for governments to create a framework in which businesses can take up some of the responsibility for those issues.
At Hitachi, we think we have solutions to deal with many of today’s societal challenges. But as a business, we do need a level playing field and some predictability. Many of the investments needed demand a long cycle that often goes beyond the traditional timeframe of an elected parliament.
TI: So, is it down to organisations like CSR Europe to make sure legislation is in place across Europe?
HD: CSR Europe is not a lobbying organisation. We are all about collaboration – between businesses, and between stakeholders, with policymakers being one of them. We have to be careful not to ask for more or less. But having a predictable landscape is helpful.
TI: What do you think of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a tool to set priorities and targets?
HD: It can create a framework that encourages businesses to come together. Of course, collaboration is very much a buzzword right now. But the challenge is to create impact and leverage the strength of different players. The SDGs manage to highlight the shared responsibilities and the role that businesses need to play.
TI: Which are the companies getting it right?
HD: t’s not appropriate for me to point to one company over another. But those that are doing it well are showing a proactive approach to collaboration. And they are engaging their teams, within HR, legal, purchasing, etc. Those companies will ultimately be more successful.
TI: How is Hitachi embracing collaboration?
HD: For us, it’s all about co-creation and working with others to come up with solutions.
For example, in healthcare we are working with people within the NHS to come up with data-driven platforms to deal with lifestyle diseases. We are working with different actors in the rail sector to come up with highly reliable railways solutions. And we’re teaming up with universities and technical colleges to make sure we develop the right skills for people to work in our manufacturing plants.
TI: What do you hope to achieve during your time as chair of CSR Europe?
HD: My job is to push the organisation forward. Led by Stefan Crets, we have a very good team in place. There is a lot of talent and good ideas about how collaboration can work in practice.
Increasingly, our role is to make sustainability part of the core business agenda for companies. Genuine collaboration is possible – whether in compliance on human rights, whether in reporting of non-financial performance, or business exchange in implementing the SDGs. There are lots of opportunities for businesses to come together and those that want to be part of our neutral business platform for collaboration will do better than others.