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Wrestling with responsibility

Suzy bibko is editor of Families in Business.

Social responsibility. The term doesn't exactly conjure up images of fun and frivolity. Rather, it sounds more like a task for Atlas. But what does it mean to be socially responsible? The basic definition suggests that an entity has some sort of obligation to society. While we may wonder in a broad sense, as Atlas did, why such a weight has to be carried at all, the question more often asked is, what sort of obligation do we owe and to whom? I suppose the answer, like that to so many things, is 'it depends'.
 
For individuals, social responsibility might simply take the form of being a good citizen or employee. For me, both those things are a 'given' in the way I live my life, so social responsibility means devoting much of my spare time to charity work in London. For others, I suspect it may take on a whole different lifeform.
 
But what about for businesses, who serve many different stakeholders, often in many different countries, who might have competing interests. How do they decide which 'cause' to pursue and still stay true to their roots or interests while not offending those that they depend on, whether it be those who make, buy or sell their products? It's a monumental decision for many firms and no doubt can cause quite a few headaches.

In this issue of Families in Business, it is refreshing to read about what some family businesses are doing on the social responsibility front. Our guest editorial, written by third generation member Jonathan Wild of UK company Bettys & Taylors, provides a thoughtful piece on how to stay true to your roots while embracing the wishes of your employees. It's an example that many firms could learn from – especially considering the way the world seems to be drifting with what seems like a new global crisis every month.

For Italian coffee maker illycaffé, social responsibility takes two different forms, though the company has begun to intertwine them in a unique way. Because their core product, coffee, is grown in developing countries, illy has taken steps to educate its coffee growers with skills they can use with other companies. At the same time, illy, a company that incorporates a high level of design into all aspects of coffee consumption, has developed a photographic exhibition of its coffee growing families, to highlight and educate the world on the culture of these developing countries.
 
Admittedly, these two companies deal in products (tea and coffee) that are harvested from developing nations, which may make it seem like their responsibilities have been handed to them on a plate. Not so. They could have just as easily decided to help a cause closer to home – and both have done that, too.

So, instead of wrestling with the concept of social responsibility, embrace it and enjoy it. No one is suggesting you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders – just that you carry your own weight.

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