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Publicise CSR carefully to avoid accusations of ‘greenwashing’

Companies publicising their corporate social responsibility (CSR) achievements risk being accused of ‘greenwashing’ by claiming that their polices and products are environmentally friendly.

Pan-European research by a group of acknowledged experts including Dr Stelios Zyglidopoulos, University Lecturer in Strategy at Cambridge Judge Business School, recognises that CSR, once seen as an ‘add-on’ to a company’s principle business, is now becoming standard practice.

In 2004 a third of corporate managers surveyed identified CSR as high or very high priority for their companies. Three years later the figure rose to over 50 per cent with more than 66 per cent expecting the importance of CSR to rise in the future.

The fresh research indicates that as corporations are increasingly engage in CSR activities it makes sense to publicise them, but there is a risk. Overly aggressive hyping of the message could have a ‘boomerang’ effect, with a result entirely opposite to that intended.

Interviewed for the School’s website, Dr Zyglidopoulos said he and his colleagues also highlight a major challenge to ‘minimise stakeholder skepticism’ to communicate CSR success without being accused of ‘greenwashing’.

“Companies are realising that the art of spin has certain limitations. It cannot take you beyond a certain point. Even if people try they will not be able to create CSR when the CSR is not there, and they will not be able to give a positive spin on CSR that might be negative.

“I believe that a lot of the corporations, at least in in Europe, that we are looking at have this understanding that spin can take you so far and that in reality you have to invest in your actual CSR, underline that and then communicate it in a positive manner.”