Corporate sponsorship of academic research into sustainability and investment in other CSR programmes is often seen as little more than expensive PR. How can you convince stakeholders that your intentions are honourable?
Corporate social responsibility is a "big tick" item for many UK companies. Graduates, surveys tell us, are looking for firms that have proved themselves socially and environmentally responsible, and a decent CSR track record is thought to strengthen brand value and relationships with customers and stakeholders.
Some businesses have attempted to gain more CSR credibility for their brand by linking up with major academic institutions. Last year, for example, Tesco funded a new centre at the University of Manchester that will look at ways of encouraging shoppers to buy more green products and also at new technologies that could cut down on harmful emissions and landfill.
The Sustainable Consumption Institute cost Tesco £25m, but its boss Terry Leahy said the company had splashed out in the interests of all our futures: "Making a real difference to global problems will take time, but our support for this partnership with one of the country's top universities marks a major milestone on the road to a low-carbon future."
But environmental charity Friends of the Earth is unconvinced. A spokeswoman said: "It's useful Tesco is responding but in reality they need to look at their own operations rather than outwards. The research looks at carbon reduction at the group's edges."
British American Tobacco and Nottingham University came in for even more criticism in 2001 when they announced they were partnering up on a £3.8m international centre for corporate responsibility. The editor of the British Medical Journal resigned as a professor at the university, along with a 20-strong cancer research team led by Professor David Thurston, who said: "By accepting the money, the university is seen to encourage smoking, and I feel that this is ethically wrong."
The university defended its decision by saying it could make good use of the BAT monies to keep it "at the leading edge of research and world class management education for future business leaders".
So what do companies think they can achieve from these kinds of investments? And are we right to be so cynical about their intentions? Jim Prior, managing partner at branding consultancy The Partners, is willing to give Tesco and BAT the benefit of the doubt: "I'm not sure they make those kinds of investment decisions with just the brand in mind. I think very often those decisions are made for all the right reasons," he says. In Tesco's case, he explains, it's seeing if there's a way of addressing some of the environmental issues concerned with its business. In BAT's case, he says: "It's almost like a carbon offset: 'we know what we do isn't great, but perhaps we can do some other good things.'"
He adds that we'll tend to turn a wry eye on what brands are up to because we're natural sceptics. "What happens is that companies sit around later wondering why it is that everybody looks at their investments through a negative lens," he continues. But at the end of the day, a little bit of scepticism won't damage the brand to any great extent. While Tesco continues to look at the environmental impact of its business in an innovative way, and "through the eyes of a customer", says Prior, people will see what it does as positive.
In the case of BAT (recently dubbed the "unacceptable face of British business" by BBC Dragon Duncan Bannatyne for failing to stop its products being marketed to children in Malawi), Prior wonders whether an organisation can really take a stance that is ethical when the core of the business is arguably less so. "There are so many questions that inevitably get asked about the nature of tobacco businesses and [their] ethical parameters," he says. "Anything they do is automatically subject to a lot of scrutiny and doubt by a lot of people."
Are there other companies that have an inherent disadvantage when trying to prove their ethical credentials? Yes, but they can avoid being laughed out of town if they choose the right initiatives. The box (right) offers a selection of what Director thinks are some of the least likely research-funding and sponsorship programmes.
The weakest links:
Five sponsorships that wouldn't wash
Healthy eating institute sponsored by fast food firm
The big fast-food firms have CSR programmes not to be scoffed at. McDonald's runs a programme encouraging young children into football and runs a charity providing accommodation for families with children receiving treatment in hospitals and hospices across the UK. But try as they might to associate themselves with salads and schemes to reduce obesity, when you think fast food firms you think burgers, shakes, fries and bad diets.
Environmental research funded by oil giant
Oil firms have made much of their commitment to sustainability and alternative energy sources. But environmental activists remember them for other things, such as in 2006, when an Alaskan oil pipeline ruptured causing a major environmental hazard. With the Arctic pack shrinking, and cute polar bear cubs losing their homes, an oil-funded centre into saving the environment would be hard to stomach.
Liver damage research funded by drinks company
The drinks giants have placed a number of responsible drinking advertisements, and many say they firmly believe everyone involved in the industry, from producer to retailer, has a role to play in fostering a sensible attitude and approach to drinking. But only a marketing genius could convince us that they would truly want to highlight what drink-related organ failure does to the body. If he were still alive, George Best could be there for the launch.
Arms manufacturers sponsor a campaign for disarmament
There's often not much said in favour of arms firms. While BAE Systems protects us through the development, delivery and support of defence and aerospace systems, provides employment for 35,000 and makes a £2.4bn-a-year contribution to the economy, would the peace-loving brothers and sisters campaigning for disarmament and a peaceful future be keen to take cash from it? Hell will freeze before a union between BAE and CND.
Airline-sponsored noise reduction centre
In June, the National Noise survey reported that only 57 per cent of UK respondents said they could enjoy tranquillity in their gardens. How much of that is related to the cacophony above? While BAA, Britain's biggest airport company, says it investigates every call about disturbance, its airport expansion plans will only add to current levels of noise pollution. We're more likely to see the launch of the silent plane than an aviation centre for reducing noise.