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Corporate responsibility has to go beyond marketing to deliver real change

To be effective and credible, I really believe that corporate and social responsibility must be part of a business and not an add-on. Every company has its own mission, to do business, and that must be done by respecting human rights and the environment.

This is only possible if a company really understands what this means internally first of all, and if engagement is built constantly day by day through communication and training. Commitment at the highest level from the CEO and the board is required – and reflected in the governance structure of the company.

CR campaigns fall within this commitment: they must be backed by engagement in the day by day business – through operations, with products and in communities. At Benetton, we’ve found it can also make a difference if they give a bright message.

Maybe in the past it was important how much we communicated: but nowadays, to reach the societal targets of 2030 on the international agenda, how we communicate is crucial. Over many years Benetton has learned how important it is that any provocation and call to action is fully supported by facts and real actions to help drive change.

A company is not an NGO. Of course it can work and support NGOs but has a very different mission and, importantly, the precious opportunity to reach, engage and drive a dialogue with consumers. Businesses are also accountable to their consumers and put them centre stage both because they buy the company’s products and are individuals with whom it’s crucial to open a dialogue. Increasingly too, consumers are aware and conscious, notably younger ones.

So a company’s social engagement, which in Benetton’s case dates back almost 50 years, is key – it can’t be the expression of something which has been made up.

Shortly, when I move from leading corporate and social responsibility at Benetton to a new role building external strategic partnerships for the United Nations, I will need to identify and work with potentially interesting partners from across the private sector. My time at Benetton has certainly helped to teach me what to look for. First, I’ll definitely look at a company’s capacity to provoke and bring about social change – what it does itself and also through partners and alliances that can deliver real change and reach people.

At Benetton we have found that this is what builds not only credibility, but also concrete and successful partnerships to drive corporate and social responsibility projects and changes. The real challenge for any company is to have this really mainstreamed internally and consolidated, otherwise any external exposure and the engagement can dangerously backfire.

I do believe however, that companies increasingly understand this and are doing more both to foster and safeguard a solid reputation, and apply due diligence across their operations and activities. In the end all of these elements – the commitment, framework, and capacity to work with external partners to build alliances and deliver real change – are necessary elements if corporate and social responsibility is to deliver real change.

Mariarosa Cutillo is CSR manager at Benetton Group and CEO of the UnHate Foundation

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