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Pricking the social conscience of Swiss firms

Bettina Ferdman Guerrier hopes that Philias can help change the world (Edipresse/Pascal Frautschi)

Bettina Ferdman Guerrier, the head of a non-profit foundation promoting social responsibility, tells swissinfo what it has achieved in its five years.

The Geneva-based Philias foundation encourages companies to develop and raise awareness of their social role.

Ferdman Guerrier has been concerned with social responsibility for a long time. At the age of 18 she co-founded an Aids prevention association.

She later went on to work for the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unesco, before founding Philias in 2000.

swissinfo: What is the philosophy at Philias?

Bettina Ferdman Guerrier: Companies are a driving force in our society. They are there to make profits and create jobs. But they can also take on the role of a responsible citizen.

We are there to help promote this social role and to help companies put this into action. We don't judge companies, we just accompany them during their project.

swissinfo: How does this collaboration take place in practice?

B.F.G.: There are two types of collaboration. Sometimes it's the company that contacts us because it wants to do something in a particular area. We help them give life to their abstract concepts.

For example, the BNP Paribas bank approached us because it wanted to help children in Switzerland. But lots of projects already exist in this area, so after doing some research we found a sector that wasn't yet supported – art therapy. This allows seriously ill or dying children to express their pain and fears. The bank got involved in the project.

At other times the impetus comes from us. Two years ago we developed a partnership with the canton Geneva authorities to help integrate disabled people into the workplace.

swissinfo: Are you not afraid that some firms might use you for marketing purposes or for their own ends?

B.F.G.: Our position on this is clear. If companies act in a positive way and want to communicate this afterwards, that's fine by us. This can also encourage companies to get involved in the first place. But of course, our projects are not designed first and foremost to give companies prestige.

Have we already been manipulated or used? Used, yes, but in a certain way. But this has allowed us to start projects that have had an impact on society.

swissinfo: Have you ever had to stop collaborating with a firm for these reasons?

B.F.G.: No. But we'll have to see how it goes in the future. We always reserve the right to stop working with a company if they have used us for reasons which are dishonest or not useful for society.

swissinfo: Why do you think that ethics is talked about more in companies today than it used to be? Is it due to heightened awareness or a greater need?

B.F.G.: A bit of both. On the one hand, people have been made aware [of the issue] especially through scandals such as Swissair and Enron. Today people don't just want a quality product, they also want to know how the company behaves.

On the other hand, social inequalities are becoming more and more pronounced. These inequalities are also found in companies, which are not only aware of their capacity to make profit, but also to act in a way that ensures that our society is healthy.

swissinfo: At the beginning this heightened awareness was mainly directed at the environment and less towards social issues. Is this changing?

B.F.G.: Even if there is still a lot to be done, I think that the situation is changing. It's true that when we talk about sustainable development, we mainly think of the environment. That's especially the case in German-speaking Switzerland.

I think there are several explanations. First of all, we had a very significant event, the Schweizerhalle [pollution] disaster, at Sandoz in Basel [in 1986]. Furthermore it's easier to assess the impact of actions on the environment.

It's harder with social questions. How do you assess issues linked to absenteeism, the integration of the disabled or workplace harassment?

swissinfo: Philias is now five years old. What is it that keeps you going?

B.F.G.: That's difficult to say. I think Philias can... change the world, in any case, can participate in changing it, while remaining modest and pragmatic.

It's that which makes us get up every day and come to work, this impression that we can make a difference.

swissinfo: It must be difficult to transmit an idealistic message in the world of business... Pragmatism, doing things step by step, is that the secret of your success?

B.F.G.: Yes, I'm certain that it's this: an idealism accompanied by arguments that have a solid commercial logic.

swissinfo-interview: Alexandra Richard

In brief

The non-profit foundation Philias was founded in Geneva in 2000.

The foundation's mission is to encourage firms to take on social responsibility.

At the beginning of the year it opened a branch in Zurich, with the aim of convincing companies in the German-speaking part of the country that sustainable development encompasses social as well as green issues.

Philias also has an international network of 18 similar organisations in Europe. Prince Charles is the president of the British partner.

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