Planes, trains and automobiles…and the question of CSR value

Last week, a team of us from Intel (from our CSR group, EHS, and Investor Relations), worked our way up the eastern seaboard from D.C. to N.Y. to Boston, hopping from train to taxi with one eye over our shoulders on the weather channel and hurricane Earl. The purpose? To meet with investors and research firms to discuss the latest trends in CSR and socially responsible investing.

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These annual meetings (which we’ve been doing for about 10 years now) are one of the things I personally find most valuable in my work in our CSR group. Over the course of three days, we met with representatives from over 20 different firms and experts in environmental social and governance research (including many from the researcher network SIRAN), who give us honest feedback on our CSR reporting, our performance, and help us see what’s next on the horizon. Issues discussed ran the gamut – from the environment to supply chain, from political accountability to diversity. We will take the feedback and share internally with the many different groups across Intel who manage our CSR performance to integrate into planning for the coming year.

During our meetings this year, we spent a significant amount of time talking about supply chain responsibility and the work that we are doing to improve transparency in the area of extractives and conflict metals. We talked about Intel’s new water policy and got additional feedback on our expanded disclosure on water. We shared with them our work to continue to reduce our emissions in our operations and steps to design our products to be more energy efficient.

One topic that was threaded throughout our discussions was the focus on connecting CSR with business value, a timely discussion in the wake of numerous responses to Professor Aneel Karnani’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility.” My initial gut reaction to the article when it came out had been similar to many of those who penned responses: Really? Really? Are we still debating this?? But taking a step back, I think there is an important reminder for those of us working on CSR strategy for our companies – and for people working to further integrate ESG factors into more mainstream investing.

While we seem to have more agreement than in the past on the conceptual value that CSR can create, we still have significant gaps “down in the weeds” at the operational level. The reality is today that many people out there in Corporate America and Wall Street today who share Dr. Karnani’s view. Why? Because we still need to become more sophisticated in how we translate high level strategic value into quantified value and how we systematically quantify and measure impacts to our companies, to our investments, and to society.

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It’s a topic that a team of us at Intel have been working on in recent months – including (and I think most importantly) members from our Corporate Finance group – to develop a framework that enables us to better map, understand and communicate the different ways that CSR creates ongoing value for our company and develop additional finance tools to help in internal prioritization and decision-making. It’s still a work in progress, but something I think is essential to our overall strategy of further embedding CSR into our business and continuing to advance our company along the “CSR maturity curve.”

This is where our conversations last week with the investor groups come in. The complexity of the topic of how CSR creates value, requires us to approach it from both sides – studying the value from the investor perspective as well as internally from the internal corporate finance perspective. As companies, what we need to do is make sure that when we talk about our CSR performance and initiatives, that we do a much better job about linking it back to the business value we are creating for the company, quantifying the impact where we can. It’s not enough to say that investing in energy efficiency projects reduces emissions and also saves the company money. We need to say how much (for Intel, $18 million a year). Proud of our 80% recycling rate? Also need to tell them that it saved $23 million over the past five years. Investing in employee engagement and volunteer programs? Can we quantify what role that has played in improving employee satisfaction and reducing turnover (ok, so we’re still working on getting to more quantified numbers on that one …) Of course, some areas are going to be easier to quantify than others, but at a minimum we need to do a better job collectively of describing the main underlying business value drivers and impacts.

Investors need to continue to focus on issues that have the greatest potential to negatively or positively impact shareholder value, and look more closely at how these impacts vary across business models and industries. Even within the same industry, companies can have very different business models and footprints that affect the relevance of a particular issue to business value. They can ask companies to provide examples of how ESG factors have created value (as some of the investors we met with this week did) and share how they evaluate the impact of ESG factors on financial returns.

As many others have commented in the past two weeks, corporate responsibility is ultimately about management quality. It’s about looking out over different time horizons. It’s about reframing decisions and issues to incorporate a wider range of factors that can impact value, avoiding blindspots and uncovering new opportunities. Dr. Karnani concludes in his article that CSR will be truly embraced only by executives smart enough to see that doing the right thing can be a byproduct of their pursuit of profits. Better quantification and more concrete examples can help more executives and investors see how the reverse can also be true.

One Response to Planes, trains and automobiles…and the question of CSR value

  1. Very though provoking article. Has Intel thought about implementing a corporate carpool programme? Indimoto.com has just launched such a programme aimed as a CSR/Green initiative for large organisations. It is also an excellent green image booster and employee welfare activity.