Speaking at the Business in the Community (BITC) Responsible Business Week event in London, Edelman CEO Ed Williams said business was at a crossroads in its relationship with the wider community. He stressed that companies should be at the forefront of driving change in sustainability.
Accenture UK and Ireland CEO Olly Benzecry called for organisations to be more radical in their approach to the subject, not simply relying on local community projects.
"CSR isn't enough to make a difference," he said. "We surveyed our customers about the ways we could improve our relationship with the community. CSR projects came last. Servicing our customers better was the top reply. People want to see that we are providing a good service to the public."
Benzecry also doubted the benefits of CSR on employee engagement, saying that people would much rather work for companies that can deliver for both their customers and shareholders within the framework of responsible and sustainable business.
He said to achieve this business leaders must look beyond reason and metrics. "Rational decision making alone won't lead to innovative and effective approaches to the sustainability issue," he said. "Emotional decisions are needed to do the right thing around this subject."
National Grid HR director Mike Westcott agreed that CEOs need to look beyond the immediate business case for corporate responsibility.
"Sometimes we don't know the full benefits of responsibility programmes when we launch them," he said. "But that's okay. We can live with a certain amount of ambiguity in this area."
Williams said that trust was a big issue in the business community and must be addressed before leaders will be perceived to be leading change. He referred to the Edelman trust barometer 2014, which suggests only 12% of the public trusted CEOs to make ethical or moral decisions.
Marks and Spencer sustainable communities manager Jo Daniels said the culture of responsibility needs to be instilled at every level of leadership, not just the top.
"We need everybody to be thinking about this everyday," she said. "People need to be empowered to create innovative and more sustainable products for our customers."