5 Ways Your Startup Can Be More Socially Responsible in 2013

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Whenever I run corporate social responsibility (CSR) workshops, sharing strategies of how multinational corporations have successfully capitalized on CSR and sustainability as revenue-generating or cost reducing opportunities, one question always comes up:

“How can we apply CSR as a small business?”

It’s a great question, given that over 95 per cent of Bahrain’s private sector (where I work) is made up of small and medium enterprises (SMEs)—which is also the case for much of the MENA region. This article is dedicated to startups and SMEs who want to practice more conscious capitalism in the New Year.

1. Value Your People—All of Them

This is one of the most overlooked CSR areas. Peter Drucker once said “All organizations say routinely 'People are our greatest asset'. Yet few practice what they preach, let alone truly believe it.”

No matter what size your organization is, there is never an excuse not to look after your employees—this includes migrant workers who may be working as your office tea boy or driver.

Make sure all of your employees are receiving regular training and development opportunities. In Bahrain for instance, Tamkeen (Labour Fund) provides numerous human capital development opportunities for Bahraini employees and subsidizes 80 per cent of the cost.

Talk to your employees often, hear their concerns, help them to set and reach personal goals. Make sure there is no discrimination in the workplace—gender or otherwise.

You may even want to dedicate a certain day for your employees to work on ‘pet projects’ related to work. In its startup days, Google gave—and still gives—its employees one day a week to work on their own projects. This practice has resulted in many of Google’s new product and service innovations.

Not only is treating your employees well the ethical thing to do; it will result in a more motivated, engaged and productive workforce. It will also reduce the costs of recruiting and retraining due to high turnover rates, and help you attract and retain talent.

2. Green Looks Good on Everyone

SMEs can still be eco-conscious without breaking the bank.

Monitor how much each person prints and set monthly reduction targets; print on both sides of the paper or turn scrap paper into internal notebooks. You will be saving trees and money on paper.

Opt for upcycling used office furniture rather than buying brand new.  Often you can find great deals for a fraction of the price. You can even create a teambuilding day out of it with your staff: re-painting, decorating and re-upholstering furniture for your startup.

And even though energy is largely subsidized in the MENA region, monitor your energy consumption: don’t use lights during the day if the sun is enough to light up the office; keep the air conditioner at an ambient temperature—even 1 degree can consume up to 3 percent more energy; switch off (energy efficient) lights, computers and power outlets in the evening.

If you’re going to purchase new equipment such as printers, try to opt for energy saver products.

And make sure you recycle. In fact, some charities in Bahrain such as the Bahrain Association for Parents and Friends of Disabled will take your plastic bottles and turn them into wheelchairs, so you can simultaneously contribute to environmental and social good.

3. Use Ethical Vendors

SMEs without a complex supply chain still select vendors such as who they will bank with; which express delivery service they will use; who they will purchase equipment or other services from.

Research your vendors: does your bank practice CSR and sustainability? Does your service provider treat its employees well? Start to ask these questions and let your vendors know that you will favor ethical companies over others.

4. Pool Efforts & Resources  

Many SMEs say they can’t afford to do their own CSR programs. But if your startup has some potential to contribute to a social or environmental issue, you can pool your resources (both human and capital) with other companies and organizations to amplify your impact and reach. Collective action is a powerful way to create social change in mutual areas of concern.

5. Be Rather Than to Seem to Be

Social responsibility is not something you do; it’s something you are. In other words, don’t ‘do CSR’ cosmetically and for marketing purposes only. Be socially responsible.

Treat everyone well; monitor your supply chain; use ethical vendors; start a small education fund for your office boy’s children; empower women in the workplace; educate your customers on important issues; give employees time to volunteer; train unemployed youth and student interns...practice conscious capitalism.

You may even pleasantly discover that your startup is in fact already socially responsible—as many are without even realizing it!

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