Is Local Culture the Golden Ticket to Global Sustainability?

The question as to whether corporations have responsibility beyond that of their stakeholders has long been debated, but with pressing issues of climate change, natural resource degradation and social inequality facing every country and even, every business, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is edging to the top of everyone's agenda.

With business taking an increasingly international dimension and supply chains stretching around the world, companies are being looked upon to help address many of society's challenges. Why, because businesses have a toolkit's worth of resources that position them well in delivering valuable resources from knowledge and expertise to finance and perhaps most importantly, a well-heard and influential voice.

While this sounds positive, the challenge lies in getting corporations to work coherently in achieving the world's most urgent concerns, and with the turmoil of Volkswagen last year, it prompts a rethink of how we can encourage organizations to really commit to sustainable practice rather than using it as a smokescreen. The answer rests in getting corporations to embed these values within their core business vision.

There are many organizations such as the United Nations and International Labour Organization whom have developed various compacts, declarations and guiding principles to support companies in making the transition towards responsible practice. Furthermore, we are seeing an uptake of reporting frameworks that enable companies to report on their CSR and sustainability strategies in much the same way as they do their finances. Such frameworks are serving to elevate the status of sustainable practice and in doing so, making it a desirable method of working.

These mechanisms tend to have an international focus and many are rooted in Western thought, but with a single business operating in dozens of countries, is it realistic to assume that such generic structures will facilitate culturally and circumstantially relevant CSR practice? Dr Sied Sadek, Managing Director of auditing firm, DQS CFS and DQS Middle East, says: "international best practices are frequently thought of as universal, but they seldom are. They are based upon international experience and best practice, but that does not mean that they can replace local values".

Such an interpretation of the mainstream led my team at EMG Group, CSR and sustainability experts, to launch the Islamic Reporting Initiative (IRI). Our research suggests that many companies operating in Islamic countries are finding the current, broad tools to not always be as practical or relevant in the local context, so this got us thinking that perhaps we need to approach the role of CSR differently. We initiated the IRI earlier this year; a not-for-profit organization headquartered in the UAE. Together with our partners across the Islamic world we are aiming to create an integrated reporting framework for CSR based on Islamic business principles. The initiative will enable companies across sectors to inclusively assess and report on their CSR programs, facilitating progression towards responsible business practice and a sustainable, global economy.

"CSR reporting in Islamic countries will follow a similar trajectory as it has done in other countries: more and more organizations will report on their environmental performance, energy management, labour conditions, business ethics and their value in the marketplace towards society. This is simply because the underlying factors that drive reporting are similar across the globe, especially due to the ever increasing international aspect of business. However, it is crucial to recognise the value in different approaches while working towards these mutual aims" - Sadek.

As such, the IRI is quite unique in its approach; the initiative seeks to tap into the expertise of those with an understanding of local business culture as a means of making CSR reporting as relevant and meaningful as possible - this is perhaps the biggest opportunity in gaining the support of all stakeholders, which in our experience, is essential for realizing the full impact of CSR-related projects. Sadek: "We may be converging on underlying principles of corporate culture, but the vocabulary and terminology cannot simply be transposed onto any culture. What we need to do - and what the IRI strives to achieve - is to recognise, incorporate and embrace local cultural aspects and contexts when it comes to implementing frameworks in CSR and sustainability".

The IRI is rapidly gaining support and building partnerships with businesses, governmental bodies and non-profit organizations and has most recently been endorsed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); "The OIC commends the IRI in its efforts in promoting economic, social and environmental prosperity in a manner that is not only impact-oriented and sustainable but culturally-relevant and responsive".

If your organization is interested to support the development of the IRI and realize the potential of CSR, please contact us at