There is a new era of consumerism at hand that prioritizes data protection, low environmental impact and private-sector ethical behaviour. It is becoming increasingly evident to staff and managers that corporate responsibility to social impact is not negotiable. For example, the Business Roundtable, a non-profit association of American CEOs, issued a statement last year arguing that a corporation's purpose is to promote "an economy that serves all Americans." Google employees protested "for the future of tech" in response to the firing of two co-workers who challenged the ethics of certain contracts and affiliations with companies. And while it may still be just a rumble, the business community is starting to take on climate-related policy reform and lobbying efforts in the wake of a UN 2019 report that indicates that we only have until 2030 to curb global warming before it is irreversible.
On the customer end, a June 2018 study showed that 86 percent of Americans believe companies should take a stand on social issues, and a December 2019 survey found that 55 percent had stopped buying a product or service because of the company's position on a politized topic. There's also evidence that among younger millennials joining customer leadership positions, the demand for corporate responsibility has become a status quo. For example, one study found that 41 per cent of millennial investors are investigating the role of a business in improving society and the world before deciding whether to invest or not.
For businesses to be competitive in this new environment, they need to move beyond simply saying the right things to do the right things. They need to build opportunities for change at all levels of the company, from the most junior positions to the board of directors, which will bring real social impact. Here are ways to start:
1. Find the Right Initiative
First, corporations will find a social impact plan that suits current business interests. If an organization can identify a cause that is consistent with what the business is already doing, it will be best placed to gain community support and have long-term impact.
For example, technology manufacturer Cisco Canada is using its patented, two-way, video-conference platform to provide interactive education and programming for mental wellness. Cisco developed the program to provide access to services from their classrooms and homes to rural indigenous communities across Canada that otherwise would not be able to access. According to Cisco, 81 per cent of students attending virtual sessions from Nunavut 's Canadian territory reported feelings of learning more than they would have in a conventional classroom environment.
By making improvements to their goods other firms are adopting more sustainable practices. For example, Flooring products manufacturer Interface committed to sustainability by shaking up the petroleum-intensive carpet industry years ago. His production of new goods has decreased the company's waste-to-landfill by 91 per cent over the last three decades, water consumption by 88 per cent, and greenhouse gas emissions by 96 per cent.
Such businesses embraced the Social Responsibility business case and put real resources behind their commitments. As a result, their pro-social programs are central to corporate operations, not just "cool to have," while minimizing the possibility of potential employee and company retaliation. They also help to demonstrate that a firm is committed to doing something concrete to tackle a problem, not just thinking about it
2. Assess Your Abundance
Companies should also be objectively thinking about what they can bring to the table beyond simply writing a check. The charitable sector definitely depends on grants and money problems, but there are plenty of other, less-considered ways of effectively promoting social change. Well done, dedicating workers, supply chains, networks, and operations to causes will create positive social impact, and generate even more public goodwill and confidence.
For example, the Charles Schwab Pro Bono Challenge leverages entrepreneurial potential through skill-based volunteering. It links employees to non-profits to tackle unique business issues, such as creating an organization's comprehensive marketing strategy that aims to raise its profile and improve fundraising but lacks the requisite resources and in-house expertise. An approximate 75 percent of charities are participating in the multi-year initiative and the overall number of hours is large. For instance, in 2018 Schwab employees worked with 60 non-profits to produce an approximate value of $490,000.
Walmart's Project Gigaton is a perfect example of a firm using the supply chain for profit. The project encourages manufacturers to engage in sustainability initiatives, such as switching to renewable energy on-site, to help Walmart reach a concrete goal: to minimize indirect greenhouse gas emissions by one gigaton in a decade through various supply chains. Project Gigaton has delivered 93 million metric tons of emission reductions for suppliers so far. It also leads by example by having 25 per cent of its global energy from renewable sources at the moment.
Meanwhile, retailer Lowe set up a Clean Water Challenge that challenged people scientists to create an efficient water purification device using materials used in their home improvement stores, leveraging their core product line to add community value. Lowe's partnered up with Singularity University, Social, and the International Water and Health Partnership to address the challenge, and a winning team built a true, world-ready device capable of pasteurizing potable water that could scale to produce 10,000 gallons of clean water a year at 1 cent per gallon.
Although concentrating on specific subject areas and industries, all three projects take advantage of what businesses keep in abundance, and strive to bring value to global societies and the firms themselves.
3. Find and Build Partnerships
Cross-sector alliances are nothing new but companies are learning even more from them. Multi-sector collaborations can also promote ongoing work by businesses and open doors to something different, and innovation in science and non-profit philanthropy can help extend the scope and influence of all three sectors. Connecting with researchers, charities and other experts in the area can also raise the reputation of an organization and prove that it takes corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously, not just marketing. For this to be done authentically and well, businesses have to really respect space experts, particularly those with lived experience.
In 2018, the beverage company PepsiCo began partnerships with six global NGOs to tackle water shortage in areas where it operates. The project builds on an ongoing program initiated by PepsiCo in 2006 to ensure underserved communities have access to fresh water for food and farming. This agreement enables PepsiCo to engage global personnel and facilities already working under the company's CSR umbrella towards a wider goal — providing access to enough fresh water to meet the needs of 25 million people in the world for irrigation, food, and public health by 2025.
Often collaborations can emerge in unexpected ways which benefit people and make a positive contribution to society; even fierce competitors can work together. For example, McDonald's and Starbucks announced in 2018 a joint commitment to develop a completely recyclable, compostable coffee cup as part of a collaboration called the NextGen Consortium. So far, 480 environmentally friendly, single-use cup designs have been inspired by the project, 12 of which have undergone trial production and approval to move into distribution in select stores.
These projects demonstrate how fresh thinking and creativity can contribute to cooperation across industries and even counterintuitive partners.
4. Live Your Company Values
The executives of today also need to highlight humanity by interweaving their personal beliefs and stories into a corporate sense. In reality, when it makes sense, executives shouldn't be afraid to take on the position of portraying the character of the organization through their individual ideology. More and more customers and investors are constantly searching for CEOs and C-suite executives that are like-minded or socially conscious and who "run" the ideals that their companies claim to hold dear.
In one recent example, the President and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, publicly expressed anger at a series of political acts he thought unnecessarily exacerbated tensions between the US and Iran. He claims these acts led to the disastrous crash of flight PS752, in which one of his employees' families perished. McCain faced criticism from social media and shareholders in making a public comment, but he also advocated for a cause beyond the bottom line. A subsequent article noted that while the economic impact of McCain's position could never be understood, his remarks set a new standard for fellow executives to balance corporate risk by speaking up for what they believe in. Combined with being the world's first big carbon-neutral food company, and working to fix food insecurity in Canada, the company is living for real through its principles.
Higher expectations for attempts to meet corporate social responsibility aren't going anywhere, nor should they. To meet the demands of management, staff, and customers, businesses need to be truly committed to making social change, making meaningful business commitments, establishing cross-sector alliances, and willing to take a stand. Slogans and one-off ad stunts are not necessary. Industry leaders must invest in impact to create a genuinely better future — and keep themselves responsible for achieving it.