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To truly make a difference, firms should code ethics in their DNA

There is a theory that when companies talk about issues such as corporate social responsibility they are doing so because it helps them to achieve their business goals. This is the rational commercial thing to do according to people like the famous economist and proponent of the free market Milton Friedman who argued that companies should not actively pursue altruistic ends unless that pursuit is ultimately in the interest of their shareholders.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this approach and we are seeing it why as its outcomes manifest themselves in numerous ways across the planet. So while there remains one onus on businesses to maintain their progress and profitability, there is another that insists that they must first, do no harm.

This is the grounding principle of ethics, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath and increasingly seen as the kicking off point for firms when they begin to address the issue of corporate social responsibility. It may be the kicking off point, but it shouldn’t also be the end point. It’s not enough to do less harm, or no harm. Sometimes you have to do good too.

This goodness repays itself. Having CSR in the firm’s DNA can help to forge a stronger bond between it and employees, boosting productivity and wellbeing and retaining an outwardly focused perspective on the impact of the organisation on tthe world. So, in order for a company to be socially responsible, it first needs to be responsible to itself and its shareholders. It should set the standards of ethical behaviour for its workers, peers, competitors and sector.

CSR and the environment

The use of the term corporate social responsibility perhaps first became widespread in 1992 when the United Nations set out Agenda 21, its (non-binding) commitment to global sustainability and the responsibilities of people, governments and organisations to address sustainable development goals at both a global and local level.

It may be a very 21st Century concern, but it has its roots in the 19th Century, in the golden age of philanthropy in many – but by no means all – parts of the industrialised world. In the case of Sedus which has shown a commitment to sustainability since its foundation in 1871, this is perhaps most clearly manifested in the vision of Christof and Emma Stoll to address the environmental and humane obligations of a modern business in a completely new way.

The firm’s longstanding commitment to sustainability, the conservation of natural resources, employee wellbeing, and worker representation was only the beginning.  In 1985, they established the Stoll-Vita Foundation to not only embed their anthroposophical and ecological core values within Sedus but also to extend them to the firm’s stakeholders.

This independent non-profit organisation ensures that 50 percent of Sedus’s operating profit is returned to society. The money is invested in the promotion of healthy eating habits, medical research and a range of ecological and horticultural initiatives. The foundation also finances projects for disadvantaged children in Europe and Africa.

CSR and office furniture

Sedus, one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of office furniture, has been regarded as a pioneer in sustainable thinking and acting since at least the 1950s. In 1993, Christof Stoll (CEO Sedus Stoll) codified this approach for the modern era, setting out the principles of balance between the ecological and commercial obligations of the firm. Sedus continues to set the benchmark for other firms in the sector, pioneering exceptional new standards in environmentally friendly ways of doing business in every facet of its operation. It shares these standards in its sustainability report, challenging others to follow suit.

Sedus was the first firm in its sector to achieve certification of its energy management system according to DIN ISO 50001. It has made a total switch to sustainable sources of electricity and in 2018 switched its chrome plating processes from what is known as Chrome VI to Chrome III. The move ensures that the factory now uses 80 percent fewer potentially harmful chemicals in its manufacturing processes.

CSR and sustainability

An effective approach to meeting ambitious sustainability standards requires an adherence to binding regulations, the establishment of clear structures and a sense of responsibility on the part of each individual within the organisation.

The core challenge of sustainability is to find ways of ensuring the wellbeing of the people of today while safeguarding it for future generations, so that everyone can live in an ecologically, socially and economically safe world. This approach defines our thinking and actions at Sedus. It is part of our corporate philosophy. We put it into practice consistently and on a daily basis. And we ensure that we have this way of thinking embedded in the cultures, structures and processes of the business.

 

Reporting

Sedus was the first company in its sector to publish a sustainability report audited by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Established in 1995, GRI and the Ecological Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), this is the most stringent auditing process for manufacturers and Sedus is proud to be the first manufacturer in the office furniture sector to be awarded both labels.

EMAS-certified manufacturers are the absolute leaders in sustainable approaches to production. EMAS imposes very strict requirements on suppliers. These include targets for sourcing materials from within an 800km radius of the manufacturing base and limits on sourcing materials from longer distances.

The Global Reporting Initiative aims to develop and disseminate a transparent sustainability report within an agreed framework. This reporting framework, which is recognised worldwide, lays down the principles and indicators that organisations can use to measure their economic, ecological and social performance. The current GRI report for the year 2019 is available on the Sedus website.

Sedus was also the first manufacturer to sign the United Nations Global Compact. The ten propositions laid out in the Compact guarantee respect for human rights, ban child labour, as well as corruption and discrimination in employment, and also encourage environmentally friendly production processes.

Energy management

In 2012, Sedus was the first company in the industry to be certified to ISO 50001. The firm’s energy policy and consumption were assessed. Based on these figures, strategic and operational energy efficiency targets were established and included in the objectives of the wider environmental strategy. The methods for achieving these objectives were set out in the management system manual and checked and confirmed by independent, external experts. Energy efficiency is a core theme of the European Commission’s work programme and so companies with an energy management system play a pioneering role in this important area.

Green electricity

In 2011, Sedus’s electricity consumption accounted for 33 percent of its total energy usage. Since 2012, the Waldshut, Dogern and Geseke sites have been supplied exclusively with electricity from sustainable sources. The supplier of the Dogern production site is EnergieDienst AG in Rheinfelden, which supplies electricity generated exclusively from hydroelectric power using ‘Naturenergie’ power generating technology. The supplier of the Geseke site is RWE AG with its ‘Natur Business Strom’ system.

By switching completely to green electricity, the company instantly achieved greenhouse gas emission savings of around 2,500 tonnes of CO2 compared to the previous year. Thanks to the investments and energy efficiency improvement measures that have been introduced, the use of renewable energy sources has meant extensive savings at the Geseke and Dogern sites year on year.