CSR - Altruism or Business Necessity?
By Carlo Longino, Mon Jun 02 13:15:00 GMT 2003

Are the mobile industry's CSR efforts on the right track, or are they simply PR fodder?

The wireless industry is no stranger to corporate social responsibility efforts. The industry is well-represented in yardsticks like the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, stock indexes whose members are chosen on the basis of their sustainability efforts. And the high visibility of the industry, thanks to both ubiquitous mobile-phone ownership and its towering antenna masts, ensures it's never far from public scrutiny.

But does the industry do enough? While "CSR" and "sustainability" are good buzzwords and make for nice sound bites, do these policies and efforts really reflect companies' altruistic intentions, or are they merely another cost of doing business these days? Each story this week takes a look at a slightly different aspect of the mobile industry's CSR efforts, and each raises a number of interesting questions.

David James' story on Monday looks at what wireless companies are doing to bridge the "Digital Divide" - the idea that technology can create great social and economic gaps when people aren't provided with equal access. He highlights a number of initiatives by companies in the industry to use their products and technologies to empower the "information poor" of the world. Are these efforts on track? Luddites would argue that the poor and disenfranchised have more pressing needs than mobile phones and Internet access, while advocates say that giving them access to training and technology will help them rise up, citing the old adage that "if you give a man a fish, he's fed for a day, but If you teach a man to fish, he's fed for a lifetime." Can wireless technologies make an impact on the divide?

Tuesday, Saleem Khan takes a look at the environmental impact of mobile manufacturers and what they're doing to alleviate it. Most manufacturers run recycling programs, sometimes offering incentives to get consumers to turn in their old devices. But is this the best they can do? Mobile phones, like many electronic devices, contain toxic chemicals that can be extremely harmful if they're not disposed of properly. Are there alternatives to these materials that should be investigated? Governments around the world are mandating electronics manufacturers take back products from consumers at the end of their lifecycles - is this a step in the right direction, or is it looking for a solution at the wrong end of the problem?

Niall McKay takes an interesting look at the financial impacts of CSR on the wireless industry on Wednesday. Not necessarily on what it costs companies to implement these programs, but the financial benefits they can reap from implementing them. Corporate citizenship is a factor in choosing what products to buy for a growing number of consumers, and the boycotts instigated by global activist groups can be devastating. Running a business ethically or responsibly doesn't always have to mean increased costs and decreased profits - the cost of permitting child labor or using harmful manufacturing processes can cost them even more. Is there anything wrong with forcing companies to conduct this new-fangled kind of risk analysis? Or is money the only way to make them listen?

Thursday, Justin Hall takes a run at probably the industry's most contentious issue: radiation. While consumers demand smaller handsets and blanket radio coverage, at the same time they're concerned about the effects of radiation from those handsets and from cell sites. Device manufacturers follow guidelines set by governments and international health and safety bodies; local governments often try to restrict antenna placement through zoning laws and other measures. But is following the letter of the law, if not the spirit, enough? Is the mobile industry fulfilling its responsibility to the public, or do they need to do more to warn of their products' dangers and make them safer?

Finally, on Friday, Steve Wallage looks at the future of CSR in the wireless industry. Can, or will, companies be proactive enough to ward off widespread government mandates, or are new rules and regulations the answer? Will companies see CSR as more than a burden, but as a chance to differentiate themselves from competitors?

It's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.