Management Briefing

Corporate Social Responsibility – Part I: The UK

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The first part of March's management briefing looks at the alcoholic drinks industry's use of corporate social responsibility in the UK.

It is well-known that the UK has a comparatively poor record regarding underage and binge drinking and alcohol-related health problems. A rather prouder boast is that it has been at the vanguard of industry-led responsibility measures.

Some would argue that the two facts are connected. Industry has had to be proactive in the face of the problems, and may claim that were it not for the work it has done things might be even worse. On the other hand, campaigners point to the problems and say that industry action has been ineffective.

The Portman Group

Arguably, the prime reason for the UK being viewed as a pioneer in drinks industry self-regulation and corporate responsibility lies in the formation in 1989 the Portman Group, an industry-led initiative to promote sensible drinking, prevent alcohol misuse and foster a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues.

The Portman Group has been a model for many other industry social aspects organisations across the world.

A critical development in the group’s history was the creation of its Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Merchandising of Alcoholic Drinks in 1996, at a time when RTDs (locally known as 'alcopops') were a subject of intense public concern.

The Portman Group has always been a producer-led initiative and the fact that it does not include retailers in its membership was sometimes seen as a weakness, given that so many of the problems around alcohol misuse stem from a failure of control at the point of sale. While the current membership comprises nine leading alcohol producers, the organisation points out that its Code of Practice has some 140 signatories, including producers, retailers and trade associations.

The Code of Practice seeks to ensure that alcohol is marketed in a socially-responsible way and only to those aged over 18. It applies to all pre-packaged alcoholic drinks sold in the UK. The signatories agree to abide by the decisions of the organisation’s Independent Complaints Panel.

Any drink found to be in breach of the Code will not be sold by Code signatories until appropriate alterations have been made. The Portman Group also aims to pre-empt problems by offering advice to companies on responsible marketing. Last year, it dealt with more than 200 such requests.

Since its launch, the Code has been expanded to cover other forms of promotion, including online marketing, sponsorship, branded merchandise and sampling. With some justification, the Portman Group claims its code is “widely credited with raising standards of marketing responsibility across the industry”.

Meanwhile, the Portman Group's Commitment to Action sets common standards for member companies including;

  • commitment to providing unit content information on brand labels to help consumers better understand their alcohol intake
  • promoting the Drinkaware scheme (q.v.)
  • including a responsibility message on brand labels
  • using brand sponsorship as a vehicle for communicating responsibility messages to the public
  • endeavouring to influence retailers to ensure the responsible promotion of brands at the retail level, and
  • seeking pre-launch advice from the Portman Group.

Until 2006, the Portman Group ran campaigns to raise public awareness about sensible drinking and the dangers of alcohol but this function has now been taken over by the Drinkaware Trust which grew from the creation of the Drinkaware website by the Portman Group in 2004.

The Drinkaware Trust

The Drinkaware Trust has been one of the key social responsibility initiatives from the drinks industry.

It was established in 2006 by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government and Portman Group. Under this MoU, the Portman Group agreed to transfer its existing educational resources to the Drinkaware Trust, including the Drinkaware website.

A key strength of Drinkaware is the breadth of industry involvement. The funding companies include retailers, pub companies and producers from all three alcohol sectors, who collectively have pledged approximately GBP5.2m (US$8.34m) per year through to 2012.

While it is funded by industry, the Board of Trustees of the Drinkaware Trust includes members from both the business and public health arenas.

Known by its familiar branding on advertising and labelling, directing consumers to its website, Drinkaware's work extends beyond responsibility messaging.

Drinkaware describes itself as addressing “the educational, community and awareness campaigning function” envisaged in the Government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, working with a "wide selection of organisations" to tackle alcohol misuse and lead education and corporate social responsibility campaigns.

The body says that it aims to change the UK’s drinking habits for the better by promoting responsible drinking and by finding "innovative ways to challenge the national drinking culture to help reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol-related harm". 

It states that it does this by "providing accessible, evidence-based information about alcohol and its effects to employers, young people, teachers, parents and community workers”. Using a range of media, such as film, multimedia and TV, Drinkaware says it helps to “dispel myths and present the honest facts about alcohol”. Among the “Tips and Tools” on its website are the Drinkaware Unit Calculator and a guide to help consumers find out if they need to cut down on their drinking.

Drinkaware also provides grants to other organisations that work to tackle alcohol misuse and raise awareness of the impact it has on communities.

Trade associations

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) have an important role to play in spreading responsible best practice in the drinks trade.

Among the CSR resources listed on the WSTA website are its 'Social Responsibility and You' flyer and the WSTA Social Responsibility toolkit. The website also features other information resources and references to other initiatives such as the 'Challenge 25 Scheme', 'PASS Proof of Age Cards' and the 'Campaign for Smarter Drinking', a programme which uses posters, beermats and advertising at the point of sale to encourage a more responsible approach to alcohol amongst consumers.

The BBPA points out that more than half of the annual funding for the Drinkaware programme is provided by its members, while the beer sector also supports the Campaign for Smarter Drinking

For the past four years, the BBPA has also been running its own Challenge 21 programme which raises awareness among on-premise staff of the need to be vigilant in preventing underage sales.

BBPA says research shows that 90% of 18- to 24-year-olds are aware of the Challenge 21 scheme, which it says demonstrates the success of the scheme amongst its key target group. The BBPA also claims that, each month, pubs turn away over 1m people who are not able to produce acceptable proof of age, illustrating the “huge effort” the trade is making. The BBPA and its members have now circulated almost half a million Challenge 21 posters to British pubs. The posters can also be downloaded from its website.

The organisation also announced this month that beer producers accounting for over 90% of UK beer sales had signed up to the commitments in the Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.

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