Netizens driving firms' social responsibility

Online communities are making a bigger impact on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the Asia-Pacific region, a new study has revealed.
According to CSR Asia's The Future of CSR: 2009 Report, the Internet and online community emerged No. 10 on the list of factors driving CSR agendas, marking the first time the category is listed in the report. CSR Asia provides information, training, research and consultancy services on sustainable business practices.
Released last week, the report was based on interviews with 73 CSR experts in the Asia-Pacific region, on CSR trends over the next 10 years and how businesses should prepare for and respond to them. The findings were presented to journalists and bloggers from China, India and Singapore at a roundtable hosted by Hewlett-Packard at its Halo telepresence facilities in these countries.
Erin Lyon, executive director of CSR Asia, noted a proliferation of online social commentaries on businesses, where such forum or community discussions touch on various aspects that include companies' impact on the environment, as well as business practices and governance.
Bulletin board discussions are a growing trend, especially in China, Lyon told ZDNet Asia. "For example, during the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese bloggers commented on [the amount of] donations made by companies. They drew up a list of contributions [that revealed] how some companies were enjoying big profits [but] giving less," she explained.
Government a key driver
Governments exhibited the most influence for CSR initiatives in the region, moving up from 3rd position in CSR Asia's index last year, to pole position this year.
According to the 2009 report, voluntary institutions had limited success tackling social and environmental challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. Going forward, governments are expected to step up pressure for change via regulations on environmental and labor issues.
Lyon cited changes in legislation in China where CSR reporting has become a government requirement for companies. "Regulations from Europe and elsewhere will be imported to the Asia-Pacific region," she added.
Other regulatory pressure is likely to come from stock exchanges, securities regulators and institutions, tasked with tackling health and safety, according to the report.
Climate change top of mind
Experts interviewed in the study also said climate change would dominate CSR agendas over the next decade, where companies were expected to allocate more resources to this issue.
The emphasis on energy efficiency, the reported added, will force companies to demonstrate that they are reducing their own carbon output. Businesses will also have to prove they are collaborating with others on managing climate change, which signals the integration of environmental concerns with sourcing activities.
Environmental performance will increasingly be part of a company's reputation and brand, CSR Asia said in its report. Businesses' impact on the environment will be under closer scrutiny than before.
Top environmental change concerns cited in the report revolved around the availability of clean and safe water, loss of bio-diversity and changing land use. According to Lyon, businesses must ready themselves for such changes--by performing risk assessments and developing green strategies--before they actually happen as environmental issues will ultimately affect their bottom lines.
Experts interviewed also point to a strong push toward corporate governance. The current economic turmoil has led to increased concerns over the way companies are governed and how decisions are made.
"New corporate governance structures are seen as being at the heart of new models of economic sustainability," the report indicated. Pressure from a "new breed of socially responsible investors" will increase the pressure on businesses to behave in an ethical way. As a result, the CSR experts expect companies to be increasingly transparent and accountable in the future.