Corporate social responsibility: A guiding concept for dialogue on nanotechnology


Stephan Schaller, triple innova, Germany

Policymakers, companies, scientists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) generally agree that comprehensive societal dialogue is crucial for the success of nanotechnologies.

In its “Nanotechnologies and Nanoscience Action Plan for Europe,” the European Commission underlines the importance to respect ethical principles and integrate societal considerations in the R&D process, and to encourage open discussions.

In her 2004 article, “Nanotechnology: Small Matter, Many Unknowns,” Annabelle Hett of Swiss Re points out who is responsible to initiate such dialogue: “The consumer is exposed to the influence of streams of information, some of it contradictory. He not only hears the good news about product innovation, but also the warnings and consumer misgivings. Talking openly and responsibly about risks is the task of all those who possess the necessary knowledge and, above all, of those in the manufacturing industry.”

In recent years, corporate (social) responsibility (CSR—or simply CR) has been increasingly embraced by business generally and globally as both a term describing efforts in sustainable development and as a concept to proactively identify and manage impact on, and responsibility within, society.

The CSR discourse appears to signal a new form of cooperation among governments, business, and civil society to promote social objectives. As such, the format is suitable for emerging markets and technologies unaware of challenges and implications awaiting them.

The role of CSR management

The challenges of companies committed to CSR are similar to those of companies involved with nanotechnology. Both are increasingly required to, and can significantly gain from, systematically assessing their impact on society.

They need to take appropriate action to make use of opportunities and limit risks while involving and informing stakeholders.

The trend toward CSR is a trend toward transparency and accountability, and it significantly contributes to a more comprehensive perspective on economic opportunities and risks. CSR measures are therefore not another burden imposed on today’s companies. Instead, companies opt for systematic CSR management because it makes good business sense. Business leaders have long recognized that being responsible not only results in maintaining a better reputation with the customer, but also can also lead to cost savings, as it encourages careful evaluation of resource use. CSR management also fosters innovation and risk reduction as stakeholders evaluate their own business activities and strategies and map out current and future requirements and concerns. Finally, the best practice tools and standards evolved within the theoretical discussion and practical implementation of CSR strategies provide helpful guidance on how to address stakeholder concerns and how to lead a dialogue.

But do companies use the potential of aligning nanotechnology-related content and dialogue with CSR strategies and corporate communication?

My company performed a quick review of CSR reports and information available on different companies’ Websites. Selecting 11 companies from a variety of sectors involved in nano-enhanced applications, we wanted to know to what extent the opportunities and challenges of nanotechnology are addressed in the companies’ communication.

We were also looking for a corporate nanotechnology policy and initiatives to invite stakeholders to enter a dialogue concerning nanotechnology. We were astonished to find very little information on nanotechnology in CSR reports or other corporate communications.

We observed sector differences that appear to reflect a prevailing trend: Chemical companies, generally required to convey more complex and controversial messages, showed strategic approaches of addressing nanotechnology issues also within the CSR context. On the other hand, companies offering “nanoproducts” to consumers provided very limited communication on nanotechnology. In general, there was a strong emphasis on future opportunities of nanotechnology, while information on risk-assessment activities was unsatisfactory. Only very limited strategic identification on material issues, including risks and opportunities, could be observed. Dialogue activities on nano-applications appeared to remain mainly among experts.

Implementing CSR

CSR tools, best-practice approaches, and standards provide guidance on how to initiate corporate dialogue with relevant stakeholders. Implementing CSR generally includes

  • Applying the internal perspective: Translate environmental and social goals into CSR strategies, programs, and management processes;
  • Applying the external perspective: Engage with relevant internal and external stakeholders (e.g., in annual stakeholder workshops or as a constant “advisory board”); and
  • Transparently communicating results: Discuss material CSR issues, including goals set and performance achieved.

There is an important trend (e.g., in the sustainability reporting guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative) to define and manage the most important CSR issues instead of sporadically attending to the great number of general societal concerns. This is especially important for companies starting systematic CSR engagement. The three elements listed above provide guidance about how to select such material issues.

To represent the internal perspective, management and staff need to define those issues that are or may become most critical for the commercial success of the nanotechnology product. This can include both opportunities of applying the product for the public good (e.g., by reducing environmental burden as well as potential risks such as consumer or societal rejection due to health or ethical concerns).

To apply the external perspective, stakeholders are asked to give their views on what material issues the company should regularly and transparently communicate. This approach reveals which issues are important both internally and externally and can benefit from cooperation—and which are important to one side only. This forms a solid basis for strategic management and communication.

Regularly addressing material issues provides the logical next step: A significant number of stock-listed companies have begun publishing social, environmental, or sustainability reports in which they comment on their responsibilities and quantify their non-financial performance in a balanced way. Analysts have started using these in addition to financial reports to discuss current and future challenges. The reports cite short- and long-term plans and resource dependencies, but also the companies’ ability to efficiently use resources and attract talents—and thus can provide an overall impression of how well a company is managed.

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Stephan Schaller is a consultant with triple innova (Wuppertal, Germany), a business strategist specializing in sustainability. Contact him at