Germany is often cast as the spiritual home of the Green movement in Europe, if not the world. This is because it’s where the term ‘Green’ first entered common parlance as the name of the West German political party founded in the late 1970s: Die Grünen.
The vast industrial behemoth that is Germany seems an unlikely birthplace for what is now a worldwide political and social movement. Based on the country’s huge coal and iron deposits a massive manufacturing base has grown up. Today its exports are worth over $800 billion, of which nearly 30% comes from vehicles and industrial and electrical equipment.
However, it’s precisely this manufacturing base which has ensured green issues became embedded into everyday German life. Concerns about the management of waste has made Germany one of the foremost proponents of recycling and has led the field in Europe for some time ever since the EU’s Waste Directive was introduced in 1975.
To put this into context, in the UK the amount of household waste recycled has risen from 11% to just over 15% in the last 10 years. In Germany it’s boomed, going from an already impressive 46% to over 75% in the same period.
Because of this ingrained green-ness you may think that Germany has a natural predilection for CSR, and you would be right. Sort of.
The Famous German Efficiency
“Germans are very detail oriented and very precise,” explains Eric Mahleb, Partner at Berlin based green communications consultancy LGM Interactive. “Some large companies have pretty robust systems in place that allow them to track emissions and footprint across the supply”.
This should be of no surprise to anyone. Germany’s organisational efficiency is renowned the world over: every aspect of business and social life is precision-engineered to ensure it all fits together just so. It is simply unthinkable that anyone or anything should break this careful order, and on the odd occasion it does happen fury is only exceeded by amazement.
“CSR people on the reporting side of things (are) quite excited at some of the developments over the past couple of years,” continues Eric Mahleb, “And there seems to be a strong adherence to the GRI standards.” He goes on to describe a conference he was at recently where some CSR consultants made a detailed presentation about the work they’d done recently.
“It was pretty commendable in terms of looking at and improving processes and acquiring data,” Eric says. “But …”
You knew that “but” was coming didn’t you?
“But when it came to communication, there was very very little skill and willingness.”
A desire to be private in all things
The issue, according to Eric, is that “the German mindset is by nature sceptical, conservative and private .. there is often a strong reluctance to share information with stakeholders,” and in his experience this stretches beyond simple CSR.
One of the projects LGM Interactive (who are possibly best known for the virtual CEO game they produced for WWF and Allianz) recently won was a Twitter campaign linked to a company’s CSR report. However, having won the work it transpired the company wished to do something else with Twitter because they were unconvinced with the return on investment of both CSR and social media.
“A true two-way dialogue doesn’t come easy for most of these big German corporations,” explains Eric, “which makes it difficult (for them) to open up in the way US and UK companies open up to stakeholders.”
This is a rather sobering and thought provoking observation. CSR isn’t just about measuring and reporting, it’s about talking, engaging and communicating. But it’s not just about talking, engaging and communicating: it’s also about measuring and reporting.
The two sets have to be taken together equally if a company’s CSR strategy is to work properly, especially in this day and age when online, web and social media engagement is becoming more and more important.
There is little doubt that once German companies have accepted the importance of engagement and transparency to their CSR efforts they will execute them with a ruthless efficiency. That time may be sooner than we’d suspect as the EU’s Single Market Act, due to be passed into law by the end of 2011, is widely expected to contain some form of mandatory CSR requirement for medium and large size companies.
So until that happens there’s nothing more a Brit can do than relax and feel quietly smug that, if just for a small time, we’ve beaten the Germans in something.
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