Corporate social responsibility: Businesses that engage with society

The odds are stacked against premature, low birthweight babies in Brazil. Often born to low-income families, the baby is typically taken to a pre-natal unit and isolated from the mother, preventing bonding. That, plus the uncertain prospects for a premature baby, helps explain why there are high rates of abandonment.

However, surprising as it may seem, Grupo Orsa, a São Paulo-based forestry products company, supports a new treatment, which is improving the outlook for such babies.

“Kangaroo Mum” borrows the idea of the pouch and alternates time on a ventilator with time on the mother or other relative. The programme has been adopted by Brazil’s public health service as government policy, Sérgio Amoroso, the chief executive, says proudly. The company donates 1 per cent of turnover on social and environmental projects.

The concept of socially responsible investing is relatively new in Brazil, with a history that dates back little more than a decade. However, it is evolving fast, says Ricardo Voltolini, editor of the magazine Idéia Sustentável (Sustainable Ideas).

It has not always been plain sailing. Brazilian companies’ engagement with society had a painful beginning, Mr Voltolini explains. In the early days, a history of authoritarian government often translated into similarly paternalistic attitudes from companies.

Well-meaning but inappropriate programmes were foisted on communities without any dialogue and often with stop-start financing. That was replaced by the writing of blank cheques to favoured groups, often without an accompanying structure, Mr Voltolini notes.

Today, however, the most enlightened companies engage in extensive dialogue and planning and are forming partnerships with government, NGOs, community groups and others to push forward an ever wider and deeper agenda.

In line with global practices, Brazilian companies are increasingly concerned about environmental issues. Typically, they focus on deforestation, the country’s biggest contribution to global warming, and the improvement of land use.

However, operating in a poor country makes it essential to consider the social impact of environmental initiatives.

Natura, a cosmetics company that has grown from a single shop in São Paulo in 1969, is a pioneer in environmentally responsible investing, overhauled the company 12 years ago, putting biodiversity at its heart, says Marcos Vaz, director of sustainability.

That translated not only into putting plant-based in¬gredients at the heart of its cosmetics products, but also seeking to reduce petroleum inputs.

More recently, the company has become carbon-neutral through a broad programme to reduce its emissions. The carbon that it is not able to eliminate, it finances through offset programmes, says Mr Vaz.

The company puts environmental investing at the heart of its business. Because agriculture is a more labour-intensive activity than the capital-intensive petrochemicals industry, Natura is able to contribute to local economies too.

Petrobras, the oil producer and the country’s biggest company, has long had an extensive cultural, sporting and social programme. Staff travel extensively to give presentations on its programmes and to solicit ideas, says Ana Paula Grether, co-ordinator of the Social Balance programme.

Initially, the company Petrobras focused on water and marine biodiversity because of the impact the oil business has on oceans, especially as the company tends to operate offshore, explains Ms Grether.

Since 2007, Petrobras has also sought to reduce its carbon footprint by combating deforestation and improving land use.

The feelgood stories coming out of these companies are by no means the norm. Many Brazilian companies are still far behind and stuck at the stage of merely thinking about the issue.

Other companies have revealed their weak commitment by terminating social and environmental spending as the recession bit.

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