Despite the pressures of rising costs that are squeezing the margins of businesses, I’ve spent much of this year on CSR photography; working with businesses who want to engage their employees with corporate sustainability objectives, or CSR, or ESG, or whatever else they may call it.
I’ve been working on engagement and awareness campaigns that focus on waste, carbon, environmental and social impact since around 2008 but there is a definite change between then and now.
In 2008 I got the distinct impression that many businesses were doing what they needed in order to tick a box. CSR was something that middle and low level managers oversaw and the culmination of their work was often a glossy report that included a mixture of commissioned photography and stock images.
Today it seems that the sustainability agenda is being owned at the very highest level and there is growing recognition that ‘greenwash’ and box ticking doesn’t work and can be potentially damaging.
Greenwashing is a now a risk
One client that I have been working with recently is now very aware that its actions are open to scrutiny not just from shareholders but also clients, customers and employees, and that any sense of impropriety could cause significant damage to the business and maybe worse.
A 2023 survey into the clothes retail sector concluded that 81% of UK consumers will boycott brands that don’t prioritise sustainability, with Modern Slavery being of the highest concern for consumers. 2019/20 people posted films on social media of them cutting up their Chase Bank cards in protest against the bank’s association with deforestation and fossil fuels. Earlier this year in France BNP Paribas was taken to court because of its lack of progress towards its own carbon and sustainability targets.
As inequality grows and the climate changes, objections to corporate action or inaction will no longer be just a Tweet, it will be full-scale legal action and prime time viewing.
CSR Photography – document and evidence
I’ve written previously about the need for businesses to visually document progress and initiatives. Marketing budgets are often many multiples the size of a CSR budget and yet, as we can see, sustainability in its broadest form, has the ability to enhance or destroy reputations. Those businesses that want to create a positive narrative understand this.
I state here that we sometimes visually document to gather evidence and I think that is what CSR photography should be all about. It’s part of the history of the organisation, it is the visual record of achievements and it will have an enduring power that text alone won’t. For example, we have all read about 1970s poverty in the UK but we only really understand it when we look at the photographs of photographers such as Tish Murtha and Nick Hedges.
Often it is when we start the process of documentary that we understand the bigger picture. For a business that has funded a clinic in a region of relative poverty, the objective may have been to treat a particular condition. What we might learn is that the clinic has become a symbol of aspiration for young people who are motivated to be clinicians. We might also learn that just the existence of a clinic has alleviated anxiety and stress in the community and that this has led to an increase in wellbeing, both physical and mental.
CSR can no longer be just about giving money, the businesses claiming to do good need to be telling the stories of what they are doing and the positive impact it is having – and those stories are best communicated when they are visually interesting.