Think of Sweden and the images that generally come to mind have to do with ABBA, the Nobel Prize, a well functioning welfare system, IKEA do it yourself (DIY) furniture and more recently Stieg Larsson’s ‘dragon’ trilogy. Not many of us reflexively Google ‘Swedish companies’ when we are looking for best practices in corporate social responsibility (CSR). And yet, Swedish multinationals like IKEA, Astra Zeneca, Volvo, Atlas Copco and Ericsson among others have adopted progressive environmental and social agendas, and successfully integrated it into their business. This is what I learnt during a recent visit to Sweden, as a participant of a management program run by the Swedish Institute (SI), for mid-career CSR professionals in India. The program, as the SI website states, is aimed at “…strengthening relations and business ties between India and Sweden by engaging young leaders within trade, industry and public sector.” SI conducts this programme in association with Enact, a leading consultancy in Sweden that helps companies devise and implement sustainability strategies.
The first module of the program is a two-week, all-expense paid, excursion to Sweden, where participants are exposed to a wide range of issues and emerging topics within CSR. The curriculum is designed to accommodate the diverse backgrounds and interests of the participants – so it is not unusual to be discussing human rights in the morning and impact investment later in the day. Our group had representatives from infrastructure, banking, automobiles, government, IT, FMCG and the social sector. This broad canvas spices up the learning and makes discussions livelier.
The schedule is rather intense but the sessions are delivered in classic management-style, with more of freewheeling conversations, group interactions and case studies. Creative teaching techniques like role play or the use of drawings and illustrations, which call for right brain – left brain coordination throw up imaginative and interesting outcomes.
The program sensitizes participants to major environmental and social challenges – setting the stage for deeper discussions on sustainability. For instance, the scientific framework of Planetary Boundaries explains the enormous stresses on the environment, highlighting priority areas of climate change, biodiversity loss and increase in the levels of atmospheric nitrogen. As these issues come to bear on governments around the world, they will inform policies, in turn impacting businesses. The level of preparedness to these changing realities will distinguish winning companies from laggards and here sustainability will play a crucial role.
This context setting is crucial to understanding the increasing importance of CSR and sustainability in businesses. Why are customers and environmental activists clamoring for tougher regulations on companies? What is expected of future-thinking brands in this era of resource scarcity? Should companies even be held responsible for environmental and social problems? Unless, we have a clearer idea of the negative externalities of business, we will not be able to fully appreciate the arguments for sustainability.
A point worth mentioning is that the course is designed to encourage ‘action’, so it introduces you to practical models and tools. Presentations and panel discussions by industry experts and opinion leaders shine a light on sustainability in the real world. We had sessions with senior management from ABB and AstraZeneca, where we got to learn about their sustainability strategies, achievements and challenges.
Other highlights included – a weekend trip to Gotland, a quaint Swedish island that is enthusiastically embracing green energy, mingle with local business representatives, a private, guided tour of the Nobel museum, and of course, the opportunity to experience a slice of Swedish food, culture and people. And finally – there is a day-long visit to a Swedish company, which for me, was extremely educative. I had an enlightening visit to IKEA, where I met with their sustainability team, got to know more about their CSR programmes and even enjoyed a wonderful tour of their museum.
The program ends with a second, final, and shorter module in India. Once again, there are presentations from inspiring speakers, opportunities to connect with the alumni network, interactive workshops and a visit to a Swedish company in India.
A word of advice – keep an open mind and soak in as much as you can, because knowledge comes from unexpected quarters. Some of the topics may not seem relevant to your area of business but having been in the program, I can say with some authority that every session is valuable and contributes to expanding your overall understanding of CSR.
If I were to list the important takeaways from the programme, they would be – insights on building a case for sustainability within the organization, healthy exchange of ideas, introduction to new concepts within CSR, networking opportunities, learnings from Swedish companies and finally, a means to stay engaged and informed of developments in this field through the vast and active alumni network.
As Indian companies spread their wings to other markets, environmental, social and human rights issues will increasingly shape and inform their business strategy. Being aware of these issues and devising appropriate response strategies is vital for companies who want to stay competitive. Ranbaxy, for whom the US is the largest market, suffered the consequences of following unethical business practices when the FDA imposed an import ban on its drugs due to quality concerns. Not only did the company’s own reputation take a beating but it also spoiled the party for other Indian pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, Airtel is working the grassroots in Africa by promoting better education for poor children. The result: it is the only Indian company featuring in the list of top ten most admired global brands in Africa.
In many ways, the SI program presents us with a crystal-ball reading of the future, highlighting serious environmental and social challenges that lie ahead and the steps that need to be taken by responsible companies to future-proof their business.
You can get more details about SI’s CSR management program here
Author bio: Antaash is a CSR professional with over seven years of experience in the corporate social responsibility field. She believes that CSR should be integrated into the business for it to be sustainable and has been instrumental in conceptualizing and implementing such programs. She heads the CSR function for a healthcare company. The views expressed here are her own.