Previous posts have discussed the importance of CSR and sustainable development for businesses through this period of financial turmoil. Whilst it has become clear amongst consumers that saving money and contributing to sustainable development need not be opposing aims, this has been less explored for the business realm.

Here are a just a handful of the ways in which the recession has affected businesses and sustainable development – both good and bad:

1) Travel

Travel, has been one of the first things to show shifts towards improved environmental sustainability as air and road traffic have fallen and train passengers have risen. Anecdotal trends also suggest that businesses are cutting costs by reducing travel and are replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual, online meetings. Accenture, a management consultancy, believes it has saved $8m in a year by using “telepresence” systems and has avoided journeys that would have generated 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

2) CSR Budgets

Cuts to CSR budgets have taken place – and this is perhaps unsurprising as companies work to minimise costs and maximise short-term survival and efficiency. A survey conducted late last year on behalf of Business for Social Responsibility, a global network of firms with an interest in CSR, showed that almost a third expected their spending on sustainability to fall as a result of the crisis. However, research also suggest that more ‘peripheral’ aspects of CSR i.e. those less diretly related to the business and its strategy were the aspects most likely to suffer, rather than there being a wholesale shift away from CSR spending.

3) Budgets for charity and philanthropy

Businesses are making cuts to their charitable giving as they grapple with rising costs and falling trade. Citigroup’s charitable foundation says it expects to make $63m of grants in 2009, down from $90m last year. Ford expects its philanthropic arm to shell out 40% less this year.

4) Changing priorities

A survey of 329 corporate-travel managers and business travellers published in February by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives found that only 17% of them now ranked environmental sustainability as a high priority, compared with 29% a year ago. Although on the surface this might imply a shift away from any consideration of sustainable development, it is hardly surprising that as businesses around us flounder and many ‘go under’ that environmental sustainability has not remained as high a priority as a year ago. Businesses, after all, have a duty to their shareholders to protect their bottom line. This survey does not prove that businesses have deserted their environmental ethics completely or indefinitely, or that those who have survived the worst of the recession, won’t use sustainable development as a core platform on which to build their future success.

5) Energy use

Reducing energy use and saving money is being increasingly regarded as a relatively painless way of achieving win-wins for business costs and sustainable development. Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker, says it plans to increase investment in energy efficiency this year because the $23m it has poured into green energy since 2001 cut its fuel bills by $50m over the same period.

6) Sustainable sourcing

Mars, due apparently to concerns over the future of its supply, has plans to ensure all of its Galaxy chocolate bars are Rainforest Alliance certified by 2010. Similarly, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is set to become Fairtrade certified. This recognises the importance of ensuring that production mitigates against negative environmental externalities.

The slump – a second chance for sustainable development?

Many are regarding this ‘slump’ as a second chance to make real progress towards sustainable development. It is also seen as an opportunity to restores customers’ faith in businesses, which has taken a serious hammering in the light of recent financial events.