Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is used by a lot of businesses just as a mechanism to do the least, Nozipho January-Bardill, chairperson of the UN Global Compact Local Network SA said on Wednesday.
She is also a non-executive director of Anglogold Ashanti, Credit Suisse Securities and Mercedes Benz SA and took part in a debate in Cape Town at the 3rd Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) Ministerial Conference.
"Some businesses are only now learning about sustainable development. Most businesses do business to make money, not to save the environment," she said.
"So, when 'monetisations' are not set and we are not working on it, it often simply becomes about ticking boxes for business. We have not internalised or socialised (sustainability) issues in institutions. There is a lot of work to be done."
In her view, CSR is largely "a top down thing" for many companies, although she admitted that she has seen examples of companies that approached their CSR "from the bottom up" - looking at what demands there are in communities - like shelter, food and education - rather than just looking at the supply side.
"Yes, there are some companies trying to shift the paradigm of 'giving (money) just to shut people up'," said January-Bardill.
She referred to the water crisis Cape Town faced last year and said businesses must certainly have felt the impact. To her it was this very experience of the crisis that led all stakeholders to come together to search for solutions.
To her, South Africa's wealth lies in the resilience of its people.
Dr Mary Goretti Kitutu, Minister for the Environment in Uganda, stressed the importance of ensuring business is done in a sustainable way.
From a political point of view, she said unfortunately many politicians think the environment portfolio is not that important.