CSR as a “Culture-Shifting Platform”

July 27, 2009

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A recent survey by the branding/marketing agency BBMG shows U.S. consumers consider Wal-Mart to be both the most and least socially responsible company.

Huh?

How can a company be both a leader and a laggard all at once? Maybe it’s a reminder that consumers have long memories. Years after Wal-Mart boldly pushed sustainability to the forefront of its corporate agenda, the company is still plagued by perceptions – right or wrong – that it did so only to divert attention from other issues, such as its dealings with employees.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to argue with the impact of Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts or with the implications they hold for business in general. Some of these efforts have been controversial, particularly for some suppliers as they struggle to keep up with new requirements.  Still, I applaud the leadership position the company has taken, and the openness with which it has approached relationships with third parties who have brought a valuable outside perspective.

As BBMG’s co-founders Raphael Bemporad and Mitch Baranowski note in this spot-on observation on TriplePundit:

“CSR is no longer about reporting incremental progress to a small set of stakeholders like environmental advocates; it now holds the potential to be a consumer-facing, brand-building, culture-shifting platform that changes how we think, work and take action in the marketplace.

It is quickly moving beyond company-centered monologue and well-intentioned education to meaningful 360-degree dialogue, engagement and empowerment. It is looking beyond efficiency gains to ask more challenging questions around socioeconomic justice and corporate governance.”

Powerful stuff. And a reminder that corporate social responsibility isn’t just a niche anymore. For consumers, employees, regulators, investors and other key groups, a company’s authentic efforts in this space are a growing factor in their willingness to part with their dollars, time and respect. That means it’s not enough to issue a feel-good sustainability report once a year and call it a day.

True sustainability is about genuinely engaging your stakeholders in a meaningful discussion about where your business can/should realistically focus attention and resources to make the greatest impact for the company and beyond. As Michael Porter and Mark Kramer noted in this 2006 Harvard Business Review piece:

“Corporations are not responsible for all the worlds’ problems, nor do they have the resources to solve them all. Each company can identify the particular set of societal problems that it is best equipped to help resolve and from which it can gain the greatest competitive benefit…

When a well-run business applies its vast resources, expertise, and management talent to problems that it understands and in which it has a stake, it can have a greater impact on the social good than any other institution or philanthropic organization.”

The challenge for us as communicators is to step back and really see The Big Picture — so we can help others do the same. Have you done that lately?