Carole Leslie

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  1. Corporate social responsibility – or a real sustainable social business?

    December 10, 2011

    Someone pointed out a painful truth to me today: the fashion for corporate social responsibility is often a marketing front, masking the true objectives and operations of the business. And yes, when I reflect, usually the responsibility for CSR within a company sits in the marketing department. What a depressing thought.

    That someone was Mark Adams, leader of Vitsœ, an exciting and innovative company which takes the whole matter of sustainable business very seriously indeed. As Mark spoke so passionately about the company’s products – they produce shelving systems – I wondered if he was a designer or an engineer. The attention to detail is incredible. The smallest components are painstakingly designed and custom-manufactured. Customers are provided with everything they need for a smooth installation in an attractive recycled cotton bag. The integrated IT system supports the company’s global operations. The units grace the pages of the glossiest magazines. It’s clever, and it looks good.

    Mark is neither an engineer nor a designer. He told me he was a zoologist. And it all fell into place. Mark views business as you would an ecosystem. No waste, just find another use. Don’t recycle, reuse. Get it right, and it will last. Evolve. Every stage of the business process has been considered to ensure that it is sustainable, customer focused and efficient.

    And Vitsœ mean it. It’s not empty words. Rather than using polystyrene, starch pellets protect the products in transit. A notice is pasted on the package to let customers know they can compost the pellets. The cardboard box packaging has been designed to minimise waste as far as possible. Even in the staff canteen, bottled water is banned and filtered water from the tap is kept cool in glass bottles in the fridge. A jar sits on the worktop with milk bottle tops ready for recycling. The array of bikes lined up in the workshop demonstrate the company’s favoured mode of transport. Even the workforce are sustainable. Two of the employees are returning to their homelands, Scandinavia and New Zealand, and Mark has given them the option of continuing to be part of the Vitsœ team. The company has locations in New York, Tokyo, Munich, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Sydney.

    Mark is now looking at how this sustainability can be anchored into the business for the long term. How can his vision, and the company’s very special ethos, be protected for the future? An admirer of John Lewis Partnership, Mark wanted to explore whether employee ownership might offer a potential solution to this. John Lewis Partnership is not owned by individual or corporate shareholders. It is owned by an Employee Benefits Trust, and the 80000 employees of the company are the beneficiaries of that trust. This ensures the company is protected from future sale – as far as possible – and free from external influences. A similar model would allow Vitsœ to continue to do business their way, and not be forced to compromise their ethics for short term gains.

    Sustainable business is about more than getting the product out the door and putting a marketing gloss on it. It has to be real. It would be an injustice to say Vitsœ produce shelving. No, Vitsœ produce the best shelving in the best way. Like the natural world used as the model, it’s the honest and ethical way to do business.