Social Responsibility: The Corporate Awakening

Our world is experiencing irreversible damaging climate change and unprecedented levels of wealth inequality (7). We are at a critical point in determining our planet’s future, yet the nonprofit sector is drastically under-resourced and governments are hamstrung with bureaucracy, limiting their ability to help change. On the other hand, we have a strong commercial sector with the means to affect change suddenly awakening to the commercial possibilities of doing good. The new arms race in the corporate sector is towards social responsibility, and the positive employee, customer and community benefits it can produce.

¾ millennials would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company (8) — Sustainable Brands, 2016
Globally, 66% of consumers and 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable brands (9) — Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 2015

The business sector is scrambling to follow the social impact goldrush in the hopes of improving brand, engaging employees, gaining new customers, and maybe even doing something good for the planet. Looking across the growing spectrum of corporate responsibility efforts, we have gathered some general guidelines for engaging businesses to create social impact.

Work Within Your Sphere

In looking to do good, businesses frequently create a list of charities with positive buzz and think about how to tastefully get recognised for supporting them. The assumption here is that charities bear the moral responsibility for the rest of society, and as a result we neglect the extraordinary bank of commercial resources available in the core operations of the corporate sector. Whether we recognise it or not, every enterprise on earth has a form of impact as it interacts with other people and entities, and it’s important that they own and steer it. Investing in issues close to a business ensure that it stays relevant and authentic, and is likely to give projects more longevity. On the flip side, if companies attempt to create impact in another industry or country, but haven’t covered their own operational bases they will face consumer scepticism. To maximise both social impact and brand return, it is essential that companies rely on making a difference in their own sphere of influence.

Take, for example, the unlikely case of SoapAid across Australia and New Zealand. Set up by the founder of hotel amenities group Concept Amenities in 2011, the group has collected discarded bars of hotel soap from over 300 hotel partners, and recycled them almost half a million bars of soap to aid the sanitation of 100,000 people in need (1). It’s an interesting example because of its seemingly niche nature, but through working with the core of their business, soap, SoapAid have been able to create impact.

The reverse is true of global clothing brand Gap. When Gap partnered with charity (Product)RED to sell clothes that supported the fight against HIV/AIDS, they received extreme criticism for their own labour standards. Effectively, Gap was attempting to support a charity using apparel that was sweatshop-produced by children (3). Gap had failed to sort out the core of its own operations before entering the ethical space, and it did irreparable brand damage.

Own Both Good and Bad Impact

In claiming to do a lot of good they are trying to create for the world, some brands will need to first address the negative impacts they’ve had. This means being ahead of the curve of transparency, opening up on historical corporate wrongs rather than being ‘found out’. Owning the previous issues around social and environmental concerns will make companies more immune to bad press, both showing a sense of brand humility and taking the audience on a journey of progress. As impact measurement becomes more standardised, it pays to have metrics in place to understand both the good and bad impacts of a company in its wider context.

In 2011, Puma released an economic valuation of its environmental resources alongside its P&L sheet, detailing the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and water usage along its supply chain (2). Although Puma openly admitted to a large amount of damage, the report was a step in the right direction, ensuring customers that they were consciously seeking to improve their impact. The stunt was well received, with a lot of media coverage released praising the brand for its efforts and approach.

Try, Iterate, Scale, Repeat

Too often the examples of social impact we are sold are companies who have completely restructured towards a social purpose. Every public piece of communications from Nestle and Unilever, for example, are doused in social impact rhetoric. These narratives are interesting and inspiring, but most likely do not tell the entire story and have not happened overnight. It is important to start by trialling one idea, proving the concept of social impact as a competitive edge to the employees, investors and community. By taking time and implementing social impact properly, businesses can capture the imagination, not the anxiety, of their people. This also solicits participation; if the trial succeeds, people want in and if it fails, it invites better ideas.

With over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, often choking and killing wildlife, Florida’s Saltwater Brewery introduced six-pack rings that are edible for marine life. It’s a minor endeavour, but has potentially huge impact, with the 100% biodegradable rings feeding rather than killing wildlife (6). Another example is Target, who have removed plastic lids from some products and sell socks held together by paper bands instead of plastic bags (5). At the scale of Target, even trivial changes have enormous, tangible impact on the use of resources.

To confront the overwhelming issues facing our communities and planet today, it will take a diverse range of people, lenses, and industries to create new solutions. At the projects*, we approach business and social problems with sharp creativity, technological innovation, effective storytelling, and close connection to community. If you are interested in rethinking how your business interacts with the wider world, please get in contact.

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