What is the state of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) today? For the most part, we hear stories of companies touting minor, internal achievements that are far removed from the core of their businesses. While any step forward is a win, should switching to recycled paper, turning off lights on weekends or setting up a cosmetic relationship with a non-profit really be the cutting edge victories of better business? Organizations are missing out on the full economic potential inherent in CSR. When done properly, social purpose will create better products, deeper relationships with customers and healthier balance sheets. So why is CSR under-achieving?
Because the many organizations seeking to implement CSR initiatives look for a set definition they can quickly activate in their businesses. Typically a solution is chosen and applied upstream to operations and / or downstream to communications. Organizations that apply CSR to these two polar ends miss the opportunity to utilize it as a true source of value. When applied solely to operations, CSR is often viewed as a reactive measure and never fully embraced by the organization and its people. When activated only in communications, CSR is not truly considered a core business driver. It is treated as a cosmetic initiative that is not taken seriously.
The greatest value in CSR will come from businesses that apply it as a fundamental strategy across all aspects of an organization from production, all through to product design, delivery and communications.
Think of CSR as an opportunity to express your brand’s identity, much like each of us expresses our own style through the way we dress. CSR will mean something different for a plastics manufacturer in Los Angeles than an app development shop in Beijing. Both the realities of each operation and the issues facing each of their respective communities will be different, which calls for a unique and relevant expression of CSR. For example, the plastics manufacturer requires high amounts of water to create its physical product in a drought-ridden area; whereas the app shop requires high caliber developers and designers to create software in a city suffering from horrible air pollution. If each of theses businesses applies the principles of CSR to the needs of its business and local community, the way each brings its social expression to life will be quite different but also more relevant and effective. There is no right answer for how you operate responsibly. Brands grow and excel when they focus on what is important and relevant to them.
Two lenses can help infuse social purpose into the DNA of your business that will deliver a return: relevance and authenticity.
What does relevant CSR look like? If you read UPS’s CSR report, the first words you see are “Logistics at The Core.” Its sustainability initiative is not a disconnected strategy. UPS uses logistics thinking to drive how sustainability manifests in its products and services. For example, UPS used efficiency and sustainability filters to interrogate its drivers’ navigation choices and delivery routes. The company discovered that drivers made many left turns and often sat idling, which extended delivery times and burned fuel. This insight led to its now famous ‘no-left turn’ policy. By minimizing the number of left turns that its drivers make, UPS has saved an incredible amount on fuel costs, drastically reduced carbon emissions, lowered the number of accidents and improved delivery times. UPS has applied this kind of thinking across its organization from routing software to driver training and advertising. UPS struck its CSR sweet spot in this example because it tailored its social expression relevantly around one of its core differentiators, efficiency.
What does authentic CSR look like? If CSR is applied as simply a window dressing, it will reek of fraud. It’s easy to spot someone who is really a prepster trying to play the part of a hipster. In that same vein, if a brand chooses to ‘support’ a popular charity or buy a couple carbon credits, it will lack real authenticity and impact. A brand should design its CSR initiatives around its core values, not the sustainability flavor of the month. Estée Lauder, for example, is known as one of the biggest corporate supporters of the Pink Ribbon campaign. This is not just a cosmetic partnership. Twenty years ago Estée Lauder helped popularize and globalize the Pink Ribbon symbol by giving ribbons out at every one of its beauty counters. Shortly after, Estée Lauder helped co-found the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Women’s health, beauty and self-esteem are core to the Estée Lauder brand. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. It makes sense that Estée Lauder has built breast cancer prevention into its values, products and brand. Estée Lauder’s Pink Ribbon initiative and commitment to breast cancer prevention is deeply personal and completely authentic; and it is why the effort works so well for the company.
CSR is at its most valuable as a personal expression of a brand that comes from deep within the organization. CSR should be applied in a relevant and authentic manner to every aspect of an organization. Brands on the cutting edge are re-framing how they think about CSR and rather than asking how it will make them look better, are asking how their products and services will improve the behaviors of their customers.
If you are thinking about how to implement and extract value from CSR, first understand the principles of the space by learning about ‘shared value’ and ‘sustainability’. Then apply those principles throughout your organization: hiring, product and service design and budgeting, in a way that is relevant and authentic to your brand ethos. This approach will set a startup or a fifty-year-old multi-national on the course for creating a healthy business and beloved brand.