By Sarah Coles
We live in a continually changing and dynamic age where organizations must habitually look to re-invent themselves to address complex challenges in their industry.
To be successful and innovative today, companies are looking beyond traditional innovation to their social and environmental impacts – from operational processes and spurring creativity among employees to designing new products and services.
Corporate social responsibility actually plays a valuable role in fostering innovation both within companies and on the outside. Externally, more and more programs cropping up means more access to resources and opportunities for people and organizations than ever before. Internally, these programs are inspiring companies to innovate from within, and create new or expanded products to better serve customers – and their communities.
Innovative CSR: Dell and Starbucks Make it Easy
One of the most evident areas is educational programs – an area where innovation is critical in filling funding and resource gaps. The Dell Youth Connect program, for example, illustrates how a company can leverage its core competencies - and products - to not only give back but also foster innovation in its communities.
By providing access to technology as well as funding grants in underserved communities, Dell is addressing community needs that might hamper a child’s ability to learn, while providing children with the tools necessary to be successful in work and life.
Starbucks has also found an interesting way to help address the gaps in resources that many schools are now facing through its partnership with Donor’s Choose, which allows people to inspire change locally. For every purchase of certain Starbuck’s products, Donor’s Choose will allocate money toward a neighborhood public school of the consumer’s choice.
What's the business' return on investment?
By laying the foundation for young people to pursue better careers and lives through access to educational resources and technology, these companies are opening doors for the possibility of innovation that would not otherwise exist. Kids that once did not have the tools to pursue employment opportunities, or complete college applications or even learn fundamental skills for their future, now have the resources to do so.
But that's the external piece. CSR ironically can also push a company to better innovate from within because one of the most fundamental elements of CSR is engagement- and better engagement with employees and customers leads to more targeted business models.
Patagonia & Sustainable Salmon Jerky?
For example, Patagonia has long been known for continually and aggressively pursuing sustainability as its core mission, but recently expanded its efforts into unlikely areas. It now offers music downloads to benefit environmental charities and even sells sustainable salmon jerky.
Like all things Patagonia, there is a meaningful story behind such a seemingly unrelated product offering: to develop a new sourcing system that produces higher quality fish while protecting wild salmon.
The idea, ironically enough, spurs from the company’s knowledge of the cotton industry, when in the early 1990s, workers at some stores were getting sick due to formaldehyde in the shirts. When further research showed that the traditional method of producing cotton involved a laundry list of chemicals, the company began working with select growers to create organic cotton.
The company’s entire sportswear line has used 100 percent organically grown cotton for the last 15 years. Now, they hope to apply the same dedication to revolutionize the salmon industry.
Internal Innovation: Lessons from Whole Foods & Naked Pizza
Another example is Whole Foods, a company that began as a small co-op in Austin, Texas, on a mission of social responsibility. CEO John Mackey has often spoken about his mission to change the way business is practiced in the U.S calling it "conscious business." The concept seems simple enough- strive for excellence and focus on improving the world.
From personal shoppers to in-store events, however, Whole Foods took the traditional grocery shopping experience to another level. Mackey and team recently opened Wellness Clubs around the country, offering classes on cooking, nutrition and healthy lifestyle, and also introduced a vegan private-label line last year based on the book The Engine 2 Diet.
Another marriage of CSR, health and education is Naked Pizza, a New Orleans startup that set out not only to make pizza a health food but also educate customers about healthy food and food politics. The company is setting out to reinvent franchising, change the way people eat and even “revolutionize the fast food industry.”
The bottom line: CSR and innovation go hand in hand by opening doors and creating opportunities for others to innovate while consistently forcing us to look within for ways that we can bring new value to the business.
CSR, in fact, if understood correctly, can actually become a catalyst in fostering and creating innovation through change.