Has corporate social responsibility become the modern gold rush?

Dove, Chipotle and Patagonia are among some of the companies trying to get out ahead of their competitors by aggressively backing social and environmental issues.

Companies have traditionally competed to release the best products or provide the best services, but experts say a new type of gold rush is unfolding, one in which brands race each other to claim an environmental or social cause.

“Corporate social responsibility is getting competitive,” Simon Mainwaring, CEO of brand consultancy We First Branding, said at a sustainability conference in Los Angeles earlier this month. “Hurry, carve out what you want to own now.”

Issues like climate change, poverty and gender inequality require urgent attention, he said, and those companies that focus on their values and not the bottom line gain a competitive advantage.

“One of the big mistakes brands make is they dumb themselves down and play to the lowest common denominator by taking a profit mentality,” he said.

Brands need to position themselves as a positive force for change in relation to a specific social cause, said Mainwaring.

“This expands the role of the brand into the culture at large, inspiring internal and external stakeholders to engage and to take action,” he said.

There are a number of big brands that are leading the way in this regard, he said. Outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia was one of the first to carve out a niche sustainability message with its commitment to responsible consumption, which it has pushed in various campaigns over the past decade. In 2011, the company released a full-page print advertisement detailing the environmental costs of its bestselling sweater, asking customers to think twice before buying it.

Patagonia has seen double digit growth annually over the past five years.

“It’s the marriage of storytelling and integrity of what they’re doing that gives them credibility in the marketplace, and it lives in your mind,” said Mainwaring.

Other brands that have claimed a specific sustainability message include coffee giant Starbucks and its “Shared Planet” slogan, based on the premise that everyone has the ability, and a responsibility, to help tackle the big environmental and social issues of the day. Mexican fast food chain Chipotle’s commitment to selling “Food With Integrity” includes using fresh foods free of artificial flavors or preservatives, sourcing meat that has been responsibly raised, and eliminating genetically modified ingredients from its products. And personal care company Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign - launched more than a decade ago - which aims to challenge beauty stereotypes and encourage women to feel more comfortable in their bodies. The company, owned by Unilever, has gained attention over the years for its advertisements featuring women with different body types, and more recently, its “Real Beauty Sketches,” a short film that went viral in 2013, which pushed the idea that women are overly critical of their own appearance. 

Mainwaring said these companies get it right by pitching themselves at an “elevated level” and transcending their products and services.

“[Dove’s] cultural conversation is not about soap, it’s a conversation about what real beauty is,” he said. “Dove is using its product as a facilitator of that.”

Other experts agreed that once a big brand becomes known for a certain cause, it does make it more difficult for another company to gain the same amount of attention for doing something similar.

Chipotle has committed to only using meat that has been responsibly raised and cutting genetically modified ingredients from its products. Fast food chain and rival McDonald’s has also committed to improving animal welfare and providing more fruit and vegetable options to its customers, but its message is less loud and clear, said Chris Guenther, research director at thinktank SustainAbility.

“For Chipotle to be out in front in this way, it has an impact for the rest of the market,” he said. “I do think there’s room for McDonald’s to come surprise us but we’d have be really impressed.”

That doesn’t mean other brands will forever be trailing behind, as people’s priorities change and new issues come to the fore, he said.

“It’s not permanent,” he said. “It’s a constant evolution of cultural reference points and values depending on what consumer the company is targeting, and what issues are resonating in the media.”

Not everyone believes that there are only so many sustainability causes to go around. “There is ample scope for all companies to include a positive impact on society and the environment in their goals,” said Kevin Moss, global director of the Business Center at nonprofit World Resources Institute. “I would argue that no one company can claim ownership of a sustainability goal.”

He said tackling big environmental and social issues requires a collaborative effort among companies.

“These problems are systemic and require cross-cutting approaches,” Moss said, citing industry group the Consumer Goods Forum’s approach to deforestation-free palm oil as an example of companies working together on a goal rather than competing for ownership.

But healthy competition among brands pushes them to become better, both in a business sense and in terms of the greater good, said corporate sustainability expert Susan McPherson.

“Much like the race to innovate in order to deliver better products and services, faster and easier, I think this kind of competition is a win-win for businesses and the greater good, provided they are authentic and take substantive action,” she said. 


Source: The Guardian





All, 2015