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Business in the community

In the past, big companies and local communities haven't always seen eye to eye. But some organisations believe that, by working together, businesses can have a positive impact on society - and the environment. With all the challenges faced by society today, including recent weather events, this kind of collaboration has never been more relevant.

Back in 1982, the Business in the Community (BITC) story started with an Anglo-American conference which provided the opportunity to explore the idea of corporate social responsibility and exchange experience between the two countries.

The conference, jointly hosted by the then Minister for Local Government, and the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, was attended by senior executives of major firms in the US and the UK. Against a backdrop of economic depression, the conference took place a few days after rioting in Bristol, and early 1980s inner-city riots in places such as Toxteth and Brixton stimulated the responsible business movement, and creation of BITC.

Founded, funded and fronted by business

It was agreed that the private sector could play a bigger role in revitalising communities so BITC was formed for business to contribute resources to urban renewal.

"Leaders from a range of businesses came together to engage with the issues in a more creative way than simply condemning them," explains Patrick O'Meara, BITC Membership Director. Just three years later, the 30 founding companies had grown to a network of 108 businesses, with HRH The Prince of Wales as President.

While the issues it focuses on have shifted over the years - most recently following the 2007 global financial crisis - BITC has always had a clear goal: a fairer society and a more sustainable future. "We see it as our responsibility to help businesses understand the societal landscape in which they operate, and to challenge, inspire and support them to make a positive difference to it," says Patrick.

A positive difference

Today, BITC is made up of more than 800 core member businesses, including the Met Office. For Patrick, its success lies in the way it brings companies, including competitors, together: "One organisation can make a change, but when you get a group of businesses collaborating to act responsibly, pool resources and swap ideas, you can quadruple the effect - because you have a movement."

At its most effective, BITC is mutually beneficial for both corporations and the communities they're part of. Business Connectors is an excellent example. Through this initiative, BITC takes talented people from big businesses and trains them to work with local communities in a form of secondment. They give their expertise and knowledge to communities that need it most, but benefit themselves by returning to their employer with new skills and better understanding.

The Prince's Seeing is Believing programme and Business Class work in similar ways. The former gives business leaders a first-hand look at a side of society they probably haven't seen before. Following Seeing is Believing prison visits, one company re-thought its recruitment policy to support applications from ex-offenders. At the same time the Business Class scheme has created links between 450 UK schools, each facing specific challenges (such as recruiting staff or boosting students' aspirations), with 1,000 businesses that have the skills to help.

As well as the chance to engage with community-based projects, BITC offers businesses practical, commercial support. For example, its Corporate Responsibility Index benchmarking tool gives companies a responsibility and sustainability health check - including the impact their operations have on the environment. The Met Office took part in 2011 and was delighted to achieve a gold standard.

The Business Emergency Resilience Group

BITC's commitment to the business community comes to the fore in its Business Emergency Resilience Group (BERG) - a collective in particular demand in recent months. Made up of 20 organisations and drawing on the support of the Met Office, BERG enables big businesses to help smaller companies and communities prepare for emergencies - and recover when they happen. The situations they cover include civil unrest, cyber attacks and natural disasters.

When severe flooding hit the UK in winter 2015, BERG swiftly mobilised. The Group partnered with government teams, environment agencies, local authorities, and recovery and voluntary groups to provide on-the-ground assistance to those affected - while liaising with insurers. "Companies needed all sorts of help with their supply chains, from logistics to move their goods, through to finding a spare space in which they could temporarily reopen their business," Patrick remembers.

"The Met Office has been tremendous - not only with the provision of data, but with an in-depth understanding of how the weather affects businesses and communities."

But BERG doesn't just act in times of crisis. Day to day, the Group encourages businesses to understand how their operations affect the ecosystem, examine their waste levels and explore ways to tackle climate change. In fact, environmental sustainability is something Patrick believes corporations can make a tangible difference to.

"The ball is in their courts," he says. "It's a challenge, because it can involve changing business models, but companies are now thinking about the long-term environmental impact of their products or services - and seeing their role as one of stewardship."