Instead of choosing between ethics and cost-cutting, it's vital we find ways to combine the two, says Nick Vermont

The language of business changed last year, with boardroom agendas needing to carefully balance CSR commitments with cost-cutting initiatives. But why are they so often seen as mutually exclusive? From the start, the McCain brothers who founded our company had a simple theory - good ethics is good business.

One of the many questions posed by the current financial turmoil is: will corporate CSR commitments take a back seat? We feel that while it is sensible to tighten purse strings, it is important to maintain focus on acting responsibly on an environmental and social level. As an industry, there is a need to recognise the ability of CSR initiatives to fuel growth, creating a win-win situation through balancing commercial considerations with wider interests.

The foundations of good CSR, whether related to the environment, workplace, commercial partners or local communities, mean that as an industry it is vital not to get sidetracked by short-term initiatives. CSR is not just about feeling good as a company, it is about the bottom line too. For example, at McCain, if we were to abandon the programmes we have already introduced, we would see our energy bills at some plants increase, water disposal costs rise, and staff productivity fall.

The food and drink industry has been one of the first to react to the need for corporate enterprises to think holistically about their responsibilities from farm to fork.

Major retailers and manufacturers including Tesco, Asda, Cadbury and P&G have shown they are able to innovate effectively, streamlining processes in areas such as water usage, waste disposal and carbon emissions. This approach to CSR has led to the success of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, whose membership is working toward a benchmark for best farming practice.

At McCain, 'It's All Good' is the overarching corporate philosophy at the heart of our company .

Last year we invested £15m in renewable energy initiatives at our Whittlesey site in Cambridgeshire, Britain's largest chip factory. By constructing three of the UK's most powerful wind turbines and an anaerobic lagoon, 70% of the annual electrical power required to operate the plant now comes from renewable sources. As well as being a significant step in reducing our carbon footprint, these initiatives will protect us from the impact of increased utility pricing.

On a consumer level, Nielsen's December Global Consumer Report reports that in spite of the credit crunch, companies "remain at risk of a consumer backlash if they fail to address demand for products that adhere to their moral code".

While it is anticipated that consumers will be concentrating more on price in 2009, companies and brands that are more consistent regarding their commitments will be viewed in a more positive light and are more likely to maintain consumer loyalty in the longer term.

Like many of my colleagues, I have lived through more than one recession. History has shown us the importance of not losing sight of long-term strategy and objectives.

Our industry has successfully embarked upon a socially responsible journey that we must continue if we are to achieve long-term competitive sustainability throughout and beyond the current economic downturn.

Nick Vermont is chief executive of McCain Foods (GB)