Corporate Social Responsibility sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s abused, misunderstood, and sometimes downright ignored. But there are many proponents of CSR who are doing great things and consumers are beginning to demand more of those who aren’t. Which begs the question, what DOES good CSR look like?
It doesn’t matter what size a CSR department is. What matters more is how deeply it permeates a company’s culture. CSR – what it is and why it’s done - should be understood by every person in the organization from the board and executive team right through every last employee. If front-line people can’t speak intelligently about CSR then the company hasn’t done enough to involve them. How can consumers buy into a company’s CSR efforts if its staff don’t even know what they are? Perhaps one of the best examples of CSR done right is Unilever, whose CMO Keith Weed said last year, "brands should build corporate social responsibility (CSR) into all their working practices rather than have standalone CSR departments."
CSR reports can sometimes be flashy showpieces that lack substance. Sometimes they have too much substance and are so laden with data that all but the most diligent readers glaze over and tune out. And sometimes the reports are so hidden in the depths of a website that it takes serious effort to find them. Worst of all is when a company doesn’t even have a CSR report. Companies that fit any of the above descriptions should look to Patagonia for an example of how to do CSR reporting right. Both their formal reports and online CSR information are transparent and forthright. Patagonia’s oft-touted The Footprint Chronicles® (currently being revamped but you can see the old site here) is a stellar example of reporting both the good and the bad in a way that engages consumers.
Companies should engage staff and customers to find out what they think is working, what’s not and what’s important to them. Corporate successes and failures should be shared and there should be easy mechanisms for stakeholders to provide feedback (and receive a timely response when they do!). Anvil Knitwear’s CSR report acknowledges both the good and the bad in their manufacturing process. They ask for feedback on the front page of their report's website. And, for fun, they have an interactive website called Track My T which allows users to see the impact of their garment both before and after purchase.
The scope of CSR includes philanthropy but is not limited to it. Corporate support for social causes is necessary: due to reduced government funding many charitable organizations would not be able to survive without philanthropic efforts, and corporate volunteering can engage employees and add meaning to their corporate relationship. But companies shouldn’t believe this is all they need to do to be considered socially responsible or, worse, use their philanthropic programs to mask questionable practices elsewhere in the company. CSR leaders extend the social value of their companies far beyond philanthropy to benefit society through their day-to-day operations. They go beyond what looks good and what meets minimum standards to advance the well-being of all of their stakeholders. The Campbell Soup Company engages in a variety of corporate giving and employee volunteer initiatives. At the same time, it works to promote and advance both global and human wellness throughout its operations.
Does all of this sound like hard work? That’s because it is. To boost CSR credibility, a company actually has to be credible. And that requires strong leadership, tough decisions and a commitment to a sustainable future.
Image via Flickr user Fractal Ken