CSR is shaping the way consumers think. In the year ahead, more and more Fortune 500 companies must use CSR to compete.
Editor's Note: It's that time of the year again and we're ready to wrap up 2012. Like last year, we've assembled an impressive lineup of thought leaders and experts who will examine the year that was, guide us on what might be ahead and offer their advice on how our business, social and environmental consciousness continues to converge. They will spotlight achievements, highlight trends and activate the change makers among us in our end of the year CSR & Sustainability 2012 series. Consider this series a call to action.
Today's editorial is by Sarah Coles, senior vice president with Ruder Finn and a regular columnist for CSRwire Talkback.
As I look back at the year, I am amazed at the progress and evolution that CSR continues to make. For one, there have been new laws and regulations to improve the way we live our lives and do business – the UN General Assembly designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and the SEC’s announced final rules on conflict minerals reporting in August. In New York City, the Board of Health voted to ban the sale of large sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and concessions.
But what I’m most excited about is how we’re making CSR core to everyday business practices. A leading example of this is the 2012 Olympics, where sustainability was embedded into the essence of the event. More and more companies are following suit, from Levi Strauss’ sustainable business model, which led to a new denim collection this year made from recycled plastic bottles and food trays, to Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan where the CEO committed to an unconventional plan that aims to double the company’s revenue while halving its environmental footprint.
Twenty years ago, most people did not know what corporate social responsibility was, let alone that people dedicated their entire lives and careers to it.
In 1989, Ben & Jerry’s became the first company to publish a social responsibility report. However, it took nearly a decade for a major Fortune 500 company to follow suit, with Shell publishing one in 1998. Now you would be hard-pressed to find a major company that does not include some level of CSR or sustainability results in its annual report. With more and more corporations embracing CSR as a way of doing business every year, I believe this trend will continue to grow and evolve in 2013 with some tangible ripple effects:
1. Better Recognition For CSR In The C-Suite
As CSR programs continue to grow in size and scope, and more businesses see the value of investing in CSR, there is still a lack of recognition for it at the executive level. Often CSR is lumped into the not-for-profit arm of a company or the marketing department. But to truly integrate CSR into a business, we need a seat at the senior table. To this end, I’d like to see more Chief Sustainability Officers or perhaps Chief “Responsibility” Officers helping to shape the future of business.
2. Tangible Measurements Of Success
Skeptics say that CSR has failed. In his book Responsible Business: How to Manage a CSR Strategy Successfully, Wayne Visser devotes an entire chapter to explaining the failure of CSR. The author goes as far as to say that “CSR has failed so spectacularly to address the very issues it claims to be most concerned about,” noting the billions of people who still live on less than $2 a day or do not have access to safe water or sanitation.
But while CSR certainly plays a role in addressing these lofty world challenges, it is not the only factor that contributes to them. In fact, basing “success” on these types of statistics is a very narrow way of looking at how CSR is measured.
Yes, we would all love to solve world hunger and end global warming, but these changes are a process that is continuously evolving, just like the CSR industry itself. Measures of success in CSR, in fact, can be gauged in countless ways – from raising awareness to shifting entire mindsets, from starting a dialogue to creating an entire social movement. As CSR evolves, educating decision-makers on measurements of success needs to become a critical part of the discussion.
3. Using CSR to Drive Competition
I believe CSR does a lot of good for society but it also challenges businesses and professionals to think differently. In a way, the friendly competition it creates – from companies’ reporting better emissions numbers to competing for market share through new campaigns – CSR encourages companies and consumers alike to think more critically about the choices they make.
This is one area where we’ve made the most strides – companies thinking with a CSR mindset have developed more eco-friendly products like Nissan’s Leaf, the first mass-market electric car, and Nike's decision to create uniforms from discarded plastic bottles, have been creative with ad and marketing campaigns like GE’s Ecoimagination and Pepsi's Refresh Project, and donated billions of dollars to charities.
At the end of the day, CSR has shaped how we do business today, and will play an even greater role in business as its value continues to be realized. I hope that as we become more sophisticated, globally recognized and respected, CSR will continue to shape and define the way companies do business while pushing consumers to think more critically about who they do business with.
This in turn will help us not only do great things for the world (and move the ever-heavy needle), but also motivate and encourage each other to do better, and not just for the sake of CSR. To me, that is success.