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Alan Hassenfeld: Social responsibility gives you a competitive edge

At Hasbro we make toys. We also make a lot of packaging and, consequently, we're part of a bigger problem affecting our world – waste.

We work with another family-owned business, Wal-Mart, to lessen our impact and the results are startling. Every one of our products today has a traceable footprint and Wal-Mart expects us to improve our environmental responsibility on that product on a yearly basis.

In practice this has meant using fully recyclable cardboard, which means we use less material. Last year alone we saved six million pounds of paper board. Not only are we doing the right thing, we are also cutting costs.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks like this: too little time, a belief that you won't make a tangible difference and the current economic downturn have all been cited as reasons why companies turn their backs on social responsibility. But if you decide to stick your head in the sand on this issue then all you're doing is giving your competitors an edge.

Here's the thing. The environment doesn't take a break because there's a recession going on, so you can't let up on being socially responsible. If anything, doing the right thing in an economic downturn is the time when you are able to take market share away from other people.

It really does give you an advantage and separates you from the rest of the pack. So it's not a question of having insufficient time, it's a question of making the time.

As for those who think they can't make a difference on their own, I like to tell them a story. There's an old man on a beach surrounded by thousands of starfish. He begins to throw them back into the sea. A young man walks past and asks him what he's doing.

"I'm saving the starfish one at a time," the old man replies. "But there are thousands, how can you make any difference?" asks the young man. The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back in the sea and says "For that starfish I just made a difference".

What he is really saying is that no matter what the odds and no matter who you are you can make a difference. If everybody thinks that they can't make a difference then nobody does anything.

If you think that your business is too "small" to make a difference then I'm afraid you're just copping out. I firmly believe that we have a responsibility not only to our own companies but also to society. If everybody just touches one person, what a change we would make.

Also, think about your employees – your extended family. In my experience they want to feel that they're working for a company that has a heart, an ethical compass. By creating a better environment for your own people you will in turn be able to attract talented people. What's more, you can become a model for other companies to follow.

However you decide to do it, it is essential that the right person is chosen to take the lead on this. The fish rots from the head as they say, so the chosen leader really has to have their heart and soul in it – you can't pay lip service to social responsibility.

What are the consequences if you don't go down this road? It's simple, you won't be a part of the 21st century.

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