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CSR needs to be more than “window-dressing” says global social enterprise expert

Victoria is setting a global standard that other nations can learn from when it comes to genuinely effective corporate social responsibility, or CSR, according to a global social enterprise expert.

Speaking at the annual Social Traders Conference in Melbourne on Wednesday, Canadian David Le Page, former Chair of the Social Enterprise World Forum said that countries like Canada and Australia – led by Victoria – were properly exploring the potential of ‘social procurement’ as the most effective form of CSR.

‘Social procurement’ refers to the buying of goods and services from social enterprise in order to drive social impact – such as job creation, education or environmental impact.

Social Traders estimate that Government and business buyers combined spent more than $50 million buying from social enterprise in the last financial year, which supports around 500 jobs for people from disadvantaged communities.

But Le Page warned the capacity for widespread change was limited unless buyers focus on the social value of transactions, and not just economic value.

“Social enterprises are legitimate businesses that have a social, cultural or environmental cause at their heart, and their profits go into supporting that cause,” Le Page said. “Buying from these businesses represents the greatest potential for huge social impact in Australia, with the state of Victoria setting a standard that others can follow.”

According to him, social procurement needs to be seen as a tool for community transformation first and foremost however and the risk is businesses may miss the point and see social procurement as an easy CSR win.

“Just as ‘green washing’ efforts diminish any real environmental change, we are seeing the emergence of ‘social washing’ – seemingly social value-based business activity, but in actuality merely done in the name of ‘marketing’, ‘corporate image’ or CSR.” he said. “Social washing or ‘window dressing’ efforts will set us back or eliminate us from progressing toward a social value market.”

Social procurement pioneers here in Australia, Le Page continues and State Governments and some large businesses see the complexity of the issues that are affecting the communities in which they work and have led the way in developing social procurement practices that are not focused merely on lowest price or shareholder outcomes.

“What we have learned is that lowest price is not necessarily the best value. Social procurement leaders are beginning to take a four-tiered approach to buying decisions – factoring in not just price and quality, but environmental and social as well,” he said.

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