High street shops pioneer new era of CSR

High street names from Monsoon and the Co-op are taking their corporate responsibility seriously, and it’s having a significant impact

With all the wall-to-wall media showing us the repercussions of corporate greed, it’s refreshing to hear from the opposite end of the spectrum about multinationals launching schemes to give back rather than just take.

The Co-operative Bank, clothing chain Monsoon and cosmetics giant Lush are leaders in finding new ways to develop their philanthropy. Lush’s latest initiative – giving unsung volunteers, ie those without professional fundraising backgrounds, the means to access funding – further boosts its credentials of supporting grassroots environmental, animal and human rights campaigns.

With shops in 43 countries, it supports among other things, anti-fracking campaigns in Argentina and tree nurseries in Uganda and Kenya. As such the company is the antithesis of the tax-evading, profit-motivated behemoths so vilified by UK Uncut: Vodaphone, Sir Philip Green’s Topshop and BHS.

As Mark Constantine, founder of Lush, explains: “I like to look after people who like to look after other people.” Constantine is matching the £1m given away last year with his own money and has two policies which speak volumes. First domestic flights are banned and recognising that the government refuses to tax aviation fuel, his company does; the carbon tax they collect goes straight into supporting climate change and cleaner transport campaigns to the tune of £120,000 last year.

The second is the £250,000 a year Charity Pot. Each store sells body cream pots with all proceeds going towards campaigns, so the product is effectively made for free and given away. Commercial suicide on a wider scale, but Constantine and his employees, mostly with backgrounds in activism, are happy to court controversy.

Hilary Jones, the company’s ethical director, who has been with the company since its inception, explains: “We don’t have a problem in supporting groups like Plane Stupid because we don’t worry about our image; we aim to be braver in our giving, not grey and corporate.

“Being able to give money to stop an animal rescue centre closing or supporting hunt sabs or Guantanamo prisoners; it’s touching that by selling soap and having the balls to do all this we can reinvigorate debate.”

Two recent additions to the campaigns team have been at the forefront of such debate: the aptly-named Becca Lush, an anti-roads protestor active during the nineties and Tamsin Omond from the 2000s’ Climate Camp rushes.

“If I wasn’t 100% sure about this company I wouldn’t be working here,” says Lush. “It’s transparent, there’s no greenwash. We totally favour little Davids over Goliaths as the smaller campaigns can get an awful lot done with small amounts – the bigger campaigns can become quite bloated.”

Omond adds: “We understand how crucial it can be to get money to campaigns quickly so we have two-weekly emergency funding rounds. We’re looking at how our shops can become support hubs on the high street. This ‘reflexivity’ is hugely helpful in peppering the country with protest.”

Fashion retailer, Monsoon, adopts a less confrontational approach, but is nevertheless effective in its campaigning. Olivia Lankester, head of corporate responsibility, says: “We select projects like Sewa, an embroidery co-operative in Delhi, which helps women from slum communities to earn a living and we’re just beginning a project in Afghanistan to help women set up small-scale silk cultivation and processing businesses.”

Monsoon set up a trust in 1994 to help disadvantaged women and children in Asia, which has grown from helping a handful of families to more than 10,000 women and children a year. There is a long-standing partnership with Seva Mandir, an Indian charity providing healthcare and education in Rajhastan, from where their charity patron, the model Jodie Kidd, recently returned having witnessed an annual immunisation programme which reaches 1,500 children in remote villages.

Monsoon founder, Peter Simon, explains the ethos: “I’ve always believed in trade not aid, giving market access to disadvantaged craftspeople across India.”

The bigger boys in this UK market for giving are led by the Co-op which is focusing on younger people and those with disabilities and their Inspire Me campaign has been launched on the back of a partnership with learning disability charities. Peter Marks, chief executive, explains: “Our employees decided that our charity of the year would be Mencap and Enable. Together we’ve raised £7m and that is a record and has been a magnificent effort by all our 110,000 employees.”

The results include support for up to 20,000 young people with a learning disability, their parents and carers, and their local communities. Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap says: “They have helped to raise awareness of learning disabilities, which can be hidden and that most people don’t know about … and that helps us in the long term.”

Meanwhile, the Co-op’s Truth about Youth initiative, begun in 2009-10, continues this year with 56,000 adults and young people from London to Glasgow aiming to challenge stereotypes and bring generations together through shared activities.

Dave Smith, Co-op’s corporate spokesperson, says: “In 2011, we invested £13.6m in communities at home and around the world. By 2013, we’ve a target to support 10,000 community initiatives each year, that’s one new project every hour, every day.”

We could well be witnessing a new era in corporate social responsibility, pioneered by Lush and the Co-op but emulated by others on the high street and harried by consumers and shareholders ever keen to see the door firmly shut on bonus culture and the City’s wheeler-dealing.

Jan Goodey is a freelance writer/activist specialising in the environment

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