Companies concentrate on operational essentials and cut back on the rest during an economic downturn. And one place where executives will take a closer look is their corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. However, over the past several years concern about environmental issues, such as climate change and work-life balance, have prompted many companies to integrate 'sustainability' and 'social responsibility' into their business strategies. Jane Lau, CLP Holdings director - group public affairs, said the principles of CSR were among the key elements for driving CLP's business strategies. The concept of caring for the environment had become an integral part of business planning and daily operations. Commenting on the global economic downturn, Ms Lau said CLP's investment and business initiatives often straddled economic cycles over a long time. 'Our strong financial performance in 2008 is testimony to the value of being a company that values the principles of CSR and sustainability,' Ms Lau said. The CLP manifesto on climate change - Climate Vision 2050 - sets a clear target for how the power generating company aims to achieve a 75 per cent reduction of carbon emissions, and how efforts measure up to targets at various stages. 'This is a significant commitment which will change the way we do business, leading to a low-carbon power generator in the region. When we set this target we realised that with it came an unwavering commitment to depart from business as usual,' Ms Lau said. To help business clients better understand their energy consumption, CLP provides energy audits and energy efficiency services. As part of its general public CSR initiatives, CLP continues to expand community education programmes to promote the concept of energy conservation to students, community groups, customers and shareholders. One of the initiatives involves a 'Five Year Regional Tree Planting Programme' that aims to plant a million trees in five years across the Asia-Pacific region where CLP operates. Another initiative is CLP's 'Young Power Programme', a youth leadership and environmental programme which has recently been extended from Hong Kong to India and the mainland. 'Energy efficiency is an effort every customer can take to reduce emissions and realise their environmental responsibility - in good times and bad. Collectively, each small step made will add up to make a big difference to the environment,' Ms Lau said. According to Richard Welford, chairman of CSR Asia, treating expenditure relating to CSR as an investment could help keep the concept on the board room table during the economic downturn. 'Inevitably, some companies forced to cut costs may have delayed investing in new environmentally responsible technology or implementing CSR initiatives. However, with relatively short payback on those investments, companies are putting themselves at a cost disadvantage in the medium term. With the prices of some green technologies falling during the recession, now is actually a great time to invest,' Mr Welford said. He said more then ever, through their CSR efforts, companies can make a difference to the environment and to communities worst hit by the economic crisis. It was important that they moved away from traditional forms of philanthropy and towards community investment strategies that were win-win. 'Such strategies linked to global challenges, such as climate change, the protection of biodiversity and health issues, for example, can have a huge benefit for businesses in establishing trust, building brands and enhancing reputation,' Mr Welford said. Ricky Chan Hoi-ki, general manager at Johnson Controls Building Efficiency and managing director of its Hong Kong operation, said while the pain of the financial crisis could not be ignored, it might be a blessing in disguise. 'The credit crunch has brought the cost implications of every aspect of business into [the spotlight], tightening the focus on solutions that can cut costs by saving energy. Consequently, decisions made today may be cost driven, but the 'green' impact will be felt for years, or possibly decades,' Mr Chan said. 'Now we understand that the effects of climate change are global, meeting environmental challenges is clearly everyone's responsibility. Experts agree that action is imperative, so we can't afford to let the economic conditions deflect us.' He said there were different ways that individuals could contribute to developing a more sustainable environment in the workplace. Johnson Controls has instituted a 'Lights off at Lunchtime' programme to encourage people to save power. 'It may only be a little electricity but it really helps reinforce the energy efficiency message and encourages people to make energy saving a part of their lives,' Mr Chan said. To promote the concept of a sustainable office environment, Johnson Controls holds an annual 'Vision Week' event to share experiences. 'This has proven to be a fertile ground for collecting environmental ideas,' he said.