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The Thing About Corporate Citizenship

28/05/2014 12:53 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

The word citizenship implies that one co-exists with others. While technically possible, you can't really be the only citizen of a country. Its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary states, "a legally recognised subject or national of a state," i.e. the subject belongs and therefore shares its existence and identity with others.

I find it confusing when businesses describe their actions as being motivated by being good "Corporate Citizens," when they often operate in isolation.

Corporate citizenship is about the role that companies play in their local communities - how they adapt their products and services to be more sustainable; and what they do with their brand equity and financial clout to make things better for those that could do with a helping hand. In today's world that sort of activity is almost expected, essentially as a component of a company's success.

Therefore, that kind of activity alone is not enough any more. Just as the traditional meaning of "citizenship" has evolved - it originates from the Latin "civitas" meaning "city," so to have our expectations of what good corporate citizenship looks like.

The need for great corporate citizenship is clear, whereby businesses collaborate with each other to share knowledge and resources to tackle the world's challenges together. This is important because these challenges are clearly too big to tackle alone; and the cost of inaction is now greater than the cost of action.

Today, we face global problems that threaten the future of our personal and professional lives, namely a world where there is 2bn tonnes of food waste a year, while 850m people go to sleep hungry every night; where obesity is considered to be a bigger health crisis than hunger; where there is rampant deforestation at a rate of up to 58,000 square miles per year (equivalent to 36 football pitches a minute); and greenhouse gas emissions that have nearly doubled in the first decade of the 21st century.

Often, multi-national companies are better placed to tackle these problems than national governments. Aside from the short-termist nature of their focus, politicians quite reasonably have less knowledge and experience of conditions in countries other than their own. However, most multi-national companies, which may be headquartered in one country, but operate in many others, are likely to have a greater level of knowledge.

To be great corporate citizens today, companies need to collaborate. It is the private sector that can and should provide an example by which government and civil society can follow nationally and internationally. To achieve this, we need to see shared actions and goals now that will tackle the global challenges that we all face today.