Cologne Business School / Sustainability

October 2011

Mr Fifka, most Germans have heard of the term “sustainability

It is true, there is not a single agreed definition of sustainability. Neither science nor corporate practice seem to have a uniform understanding of the term. Furthermore, “sustainability

Many companies in Germany proudly claim to be sustainable – they are committed to the environment or to social projects. Does such engagement for sustainability bear fruit in economic terms?

Sustainability is often associated with a cost burden, but this perception is too shortsighted because, in addition to economic objectives, sustainability also involves establishing ecological and social targets at the heart of a company. This doesn’t mean that social and ecological commitments going above and beyond the essential are not desirable, but it is not primarily about giving occasional donations to a children’s home or environmental organization, for example. The strategic inclusion of social and ecological concerns can create added value for both the organization in question and the company. Cost savings are possible by reducing the resources used, new customer groups can be attracted with ecologically sound products and employees can be gained and loyalty improved through such commitment. It comes as no surprise that numerous surveys have shown that people much prefer to work for companies which attach a degree of importance to ecological and social aspects and consequently show them greater dedication.

In February 2011, you wrote your thesis on the social engagement of companies in Germany and the USA. Are there differences between German and American consumers in the importance they attach to the CSR activities of companies? And do German companies operate differently (more or less intensively) to American ones in this context?

When it comes to the social commitment of companies as part of sustainability, there really are major differences between Germany and theUSA. There is still a very high level of mistrust in Germany towards companies who voluntarily contribute. It is commonly perceived as insincere and mere image cultivation, especially when companies report very publicly about their engagement. In the USA, the country’s religious and social tradition makes it unproblematic if someone does a good deed, makes it known and also reaps some benefits. In addition, there is strong government centralization in Germany. Consequently solving social problems, in particular, is seen as the government’s duty and it is thought that companies should be legally bound in their action, leaving little room for voluntary commitments. The situation is very different given the liberal economic and social system in the USA, where the government is far less involved. On account of the social system’s weakness, companies are counted on to become involved of their own accord. American companies often act in partnership with civil society and government organizations. In Germany, CSR activities are often still carried out by “lone warriors

Thank you very much for the interview!

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