Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a lot more than a popular buzzword, according to Teresa Au, head of corporate sustainability at HSBC Asia-Pacific region. It's all about businesses adopting ethical and sustainable best practices to benefit customers, staff and the community at large, she adds.
Au says CSR should not just be about polishing a company's image by providing photo opportunities to feature cheque presentations. It should be about a wider mandate, a holistic and visionary approach that creates genuine impact on the organisations and all the stakeholders concerned.
The concept has been catching on fast in recent years, opening up a new field of professional services that spread across a broad range of industries and enterprises.
A CSR or sustainability officer needs to have superb communication skills because he must work with a diverse mix of people both internally and externally. It is also important that he can play an advocacy role within his own company.
Furthermore, the person must be creative, outgoing and care about community welfare.
In general, Au feels that candidates should not be fresh graduates but need to have a relevant background in communications, human resources, business development or financial management.
The diversity of the field can be illustrated by looking at some of HSBC's CSR practices, which include reducing the direct environmental impacts of buildings and business operations, promoting community environmental awareness and conservation projects, and embracing diversity in the workplace.
On a corporate level, HSBC has emerged as a trendsetter in the field and has adopted carbon-neutral policies.
Au says CSR can bring enormous benefits to customers and the community. HSBC also advocates sustainable business development by integrating CSR principles into business strategies and lending guidelines.
Au believes there are lots of business opportunities in mitigating the problems of climate change by adapting business practices that are more environmentally friendly.
"We just need to translate CSR business opportunities into action," she says. "CSR should be a holistic approach, not piecemeal or merely donation-focused. It's about treating your staff right as well as contributing to the community. In terms of business, CSR plays a vital role in making sure that your business fundamentals are driven by ethical and sustainable best practices to benefit customers, staff and the community at large."
Au is responsible for driving the overall direction and strategies of corporate sustainability in Hong Kong and across 20 countries and territories in the region where HSBC has business operations.
As such, the company needs passionate and knowledgeable talent to drive and develop its policies and practices. "For example, in my role, I need to co-ordinate every department, have a macro approach in doing things in order to maximise efforts and achieve optimal results. This is definitely not a junior-level job. It has great career prospects, especially in this day and age with a growing emphasis on CSR and environmental protection. The CSR sector is a growing industry," Au explains.
Four years ago, when she was first appointed to her current post, Au had to start from scratch. She created the entire corporate sustainability department and helped build up the unit.
Au believes Hong Kong has improved a lot in terms of promoting CSR and raising awareness about sustainable business practices compared with four to five years ago. But there is still a long way to go, she adds.
"Many companies are still reluctant to put in a lot of resources and use CSR only as a feel-good factor to market their brands. It shouldn't be just about charity events or handing over a few cheques to organisations. Companies should look at CSR as a path to genuine long-term sustainable business models to benefit both themselves and the community they serve," Au adds.