As any CauseBecause (CB) reader would know, we have been publishing a series of write-ups on CSR activities of the major industries in the country. The idea was to take a closer look at some of the big names in these sectors and understand the CSR investments being made (if any), to get a sense of how seriously the corporate overlords are taking this entire business of responsible, conscionable business. CSR is now mandatory for medium- and large-sized firms and no longer a perfunctory PR measure. Has that changed the discourse and actual implementation? Or is it just higher spends but akin to meaningless hand-waving gestures?

To answer these questions, this author felt that it would be useful to take stock of the actual responses received (or not) from the companies themselves. Till now, we have covered FMCG, hospitals, real estate, and fashion and lifestyle, with a few more to follow. However, if past events have taught us anything, it is that one should NOT expect frank disclosures to simple questions. Poring over the CSR sections in annual reports and browsing through a lot of dull, vapid text on websites are what the bulk of this tiresome exercise tends to become.

Questions with a few answers

But first the good news. There are a few companies that are enthusiastic (or eager enough) to share information on their CSR efforts, even though it usually requires multiple follow-ups to elicit reasonable replies. They do respond and answer our basic questionnaire, which has a set of fairly straightforward queries related to planning, strategy, the whys and hows of choosing certain projects, the lessons learnt, spend, etc. FMCG had the highest respondents, which isn’t a surprise considering that most firms in this sector are quite active in CSR, whether wilfully or peer pressure is another matter (and we aren’t complaining).  We reached out to 12 companies, out of which 4 responded. Some like Britannia told us point-blank (after multiple follow-ups) that “they will not be able to participate this time”; no reason was provided. Special props to ITC though, whose replies were the most detailed, followed by Nestle, Dabur and Agro Tech. Perhaps, the most disappointing were the non-responses from Unilever and P&G, two companies that seemingly pride themselves on their CSR work (and are not shying from saying so) but decided to switch on the mute button in this case. Unilever did a quick vanishing act after acknowledging and exchanging emails—still mystified as to why that happened.

Some like Britannia told us point-blank (after multiple follow-ups) that “they will not be able to participate this time”; no reason was provided. Special props to ITC though, whose replies were the most detailed, followed by Nestle, Dabur and Agro Tech.

Expectations were quite low for fashion and lifestyle companies. There’s barely anything to go on from their own websites and, therefore, it would have been surprising to receive even semi-adequate responses. We reached out to over 10 large corporates in this space, ranging from popular brands like Shopper’s Stop, Raymond and Puma India to behemoths like Reliance, Aditya Birla and Nahar Group.  Apart from some mild interest shown by Future Group (who then promptly disappeared), there was a complete lack of response. Even companies like Aditya Birla who are usually keen to discuss their CSR work went mute. A couple of noteworthy facts came to light, though: first, because a lot of well-known international brands operate through the franchise and distribution model, the 2013 CSR Act doesn’t necessarily apply to them unless their partners here fall within the ambit. This is probably the reason behind the cavalier attitude towards CSR in the country. Although Zara has been doing some work in this field in India, the information is only available on their main global website. After all, there’s little reason for them to publicise it here.

Second, even well-known and much-loved brands like FabIndia, being privately controlled, do not see fit to make their CSR-related work public. Since its work with traditional artisans is famous, it possibly doesn’t see any merit to giving back more than that and even if it does, it prefers to keep it under wraps (humility or lack of interest—your guess is as good as ours).

Real estate was only marginally better. Despite the sheer size of this sector and the big corporates that drive it, there seems to be an utter lack of functional CSR teams within them. Trying to parse relevant information from the websites is difficult enough; obtaining reliable contact details of their CSR or communications team is a thankless job with no rewards. Out of the 14 real estate companies that we reached out to, K Raheja and Godrej Properties responded. However, only the former replied to the questionnaire. Considering that real estate is one of the biggest sectors in the country, it is quite perplexing that these companies aren’t front and centre of the CSR movement. While many are of the mistaken assumption that merely providing basic necessities like healthcare and safety to their workers qualifies as CSR, their lack of leadership in green initiatives is also disconcerting. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that they prefer to be circumspect about discussing their CSR work.

Out of the 14 real estate companies that we reached out to, K Raheja and Godrej Properties responded. However, only the former replied to the questionnaire. Considering that real estate is one of the biggest sectors in the country, it is quite perplexing that these companies aren’t front and centre of the CSR movement.

On the brighter side, healthcare companies were more open and responsive. Some might argue that it’s the least you can expect from them—after all, they are in the business of helping save lives. It wasn’t easy though. One has to suffer emails like HDFC Ergo’s terse statements on “not being able to participate” without mentioning the reasons why, or Serum Institute’s revelation that their website may contain CSR-related information. Even then, there are bright spots like Wockhardt who are enthusiastic and keen to discuss their CSR projects. Other large corporates like Fortis and Piramal were also forthcoming in their responses. Unfortunately, some like Cipla and ICICI Lombard, although receptive, failed to provide much-needed information. It was quite interesting to note that some large companies on the healthcare front do not organise their own CSR activities but conduct it at a group level. A case in point is Religare Health Insurance.

What that implies for the rest who preferred to maintain stoic silence despite repeated follow-ups is obvious – there’s no substantial work being done or the company is too busy changing the world.

It is expected that companies that put in adequate investment into their CSR will be more receptive towards nosy writers looking to better understand their work, beyond the grandiloquent statements on their websites, annual reports and press releases. What that implies for the rest who preferred to maintain stoic silence despite repeated follow-ups is obvious – there’s no substantial work being done or the company is too busy changing the world. We suspect that it’s the former because surely the world is progressing not because of these companies, but in spite of.