A new era of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is emerging, focusing not just on the power of business to address global sustainability challenges, but equally on the responsibility, passion, and potential of “everyday” people. The formula for addressing sustainability so far has been lop-sided, focusing far too much on the roles of industry and government. The missing link toward advancing the potential and impact of sustainability has been greater consumer and citizen (social) input and action. A global shift is underway and the sustainability equation is becoming more balanced, particularly as consumers and citizens weigh in on their fate and future through the use of social media. The common denominator to a more or less sustainable world is “People”. The 7 billion+ people occupying the world right now is the Sustainability Generation. Together we can choose to influence our individual lifestyles in ways which reinforce positive CSR and sustainability actions of governments and businesses. Ultimately, more collaboration between all stakeholders will have profound impact on this generation’s ability to truly realize a more balanced and sustainable future.
Issues Overload? Converging Needs Occupy Our Minds
The rate at which converging social, economic, and environmental challenges now impact society is intensifying. With 7 billion people requiring food, shelter, water and energy, the world’s natural resources supply and capacity has become constrained. Further, the social, ecologic and economic impacts tied to greater global consumption of goods and services is being felt worldwide. And, to keep pace with the mounting need for resources, “manmade systems” of service delivery (education, energy, healthcare, finance, housing, social security and infrastructure) are constantly being tested for their resilience. Because the changes and impact associated with “sustainability challenges” on our generation can be instant (consider the impact of Superstorm Sandy), we now require new and critical thinking and pragmatic approaches to how we live, work, and play, if we are to continue to be able to meet our needs in the present, and still have resources for the future.
Business and government are front-and-center in the public eye as sustainability challenges mount. The complexity of climate change, poverty, financial crisis, and other sustainability issues are intensifying globally, and there are no simple policy fixes, or silver bullet technologies which can address the scale of our intensifying challenges and needs. As a result, our generation is experiencing “issues overload”, leaving us having to reprioritize and simplify how we approach these issues if we are to succeed.
While we focus in the U.S. primarily on the economy, other challenges run much deeper throughout the rest of the world. Natural resource damages, access to clean water, maintaining reliable power grid and communications networks, and feeding and housing the poor occupy the concerns of other nations for example. Globally, if a fiscal crisis does not crush us, a “sustainability crisis” will. Because “sustainability issues” are so complex and far-reaching, they impact everyone. And in this new era of social change, the balance of power is shifting to accommodate more citizen input. As decision-makers in government and industry descend to their political chambers, and to the boardroom to address “sustainability issues”, the public stands by, waiting for answers and actions. When those actions don’t come soon enough, the public can snap back, like a rubber band pulled too far under the weight of the load, and giving rise to events like the 2011 London Riots, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and other examples of public discontent. Sustainability is about achieving scale and balance between the power of individuals making behavioral changes to, and taking action in their daily life; and on how business and government work together to deliver value to society, while addressing the myriad of trade-offs, and toward meeting the diversity of needs this generation has, in an equitable way.
Shifts in CSR: How Social Media has Empowered Citizens and Consumers
In the past two decades, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has largely been led by businesses as a response to stakeholder expectations or as leading-edge strategies to address how they impact customers, employees, shareholders, and society at-large. CSR is mature for many large businesses, and still in its infancy for others. Government and business take the brunt of finger-pointing and public backlash when there is imbalance in our economy, environment, or society. The past decade has been particularly harsh as politicians and corporations have had to become more transparent, accessible, and accountable to the general public.
The use of social media has emerged as a strong push-pull relationship reinforcing CSR. On one hand, social medial enables the public to quickly collect and disseminate data, information, and real-time news feeds on a global scale, thereby requiring industry to be much more aware and ready to respond on a “24-7″ cycle. On the other hand, social media has also been a vehicle for business to have greater transparency in their communications with consumers about their products and business. Social media has made the “S” in CSR stand out in recent years, and many smart companies are maximizing the utility and integration of social medial tools into their overall corporate sustainability endeavors. But the opportunity to leverage social media for optimizing CSR and sustainability action is not without its challenges for global organizations. Challenges cited by senior sustainability, risk and communication officers include:
- Addressing the potential misuse (whether intentional or unintended) of data and information by consumers or employees;
- Addressing the “context” and/or “lack of context” that can permeate social media outlets, and distort facts or misrepresent true positions, including the comment fields at the end of news articles or within social media platforms like Facebook;
- Determining the time and resources required to ensure proper stewardship of social media;
- Managing the perception that companies could be viewed as “defensive” if responding to negative tones in social media;
- Understanding where accountability begins and ends in social media outlets;
- Communicating the need and value for more proactive social media stakeholder engagement to senior management and bringing them on board;
- Adequately communicating the value, impact, and goals of the company’s CSR and sustainability efforts among stakeholders; and,
- Working to engage internal and external stakeholders in a constructive way and which focuses on value creation for the company and for the society.
While social media may present “engagement” challenges for global organizations, there is an upside. Pragmatically, social media offers an opportunity for business and government to proactively involve consumers and citizens in the design of new products and policies. The needs of society are shifting. For example, as America’s population ages, a new wave of products, services, and policies will be required and which reflect the massive shift of the Baby Boomer generation from their working to retirement years. This transformation is underway and presents an opportunity to incorporate sustainability value drivers (long-term product stewardship strategies) into the evolution of new products and services.
Our generation can use this opportunity and time in history to learn and leverage our past, redefine our present, and positively impact our future. In this equation, sustainability cannot be mandated, regulated, or legislated. If it is, it will likely fail as not every consumer or citizen has the same perception or definition of what is sustainable. The onerous to figure out “what is of value” to society should not only reside on the shoulders of business or government. As citizens and consumers we need to help these institutions and other stakeholders understand what is important to us, what brings us value, and what we feel defines “quality of life”.
Our life should not be characterized by the products we buy or the policies that influence our behaviors. Rather, we should be accountable for our behaviors and live a self-directed life that enables us to remain in charge of our freedom and fate. In this way, we can remain the most viable force in fulfilling a life with a sense of balance, purpose, and passion. And in doing so, government and business can be more fully aware of our diverse needs, and play an even more valuable role in this integrated system of sustainability.