By Carol Schubert, Full-Time Professor, Purdue Global School of Business and Information Technology
In the midst of a golden age of technology and innovation, from electric cars to new techniques for extracting shale gas and oil, great businesses are changing the way we live. With such success and influence, companies have a responsibility to examine just how they conduct business. From environmental impact to social good, the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been with us long enough to become a cliché, frequently paid lip service but seldom resulting in real change. Yet many committed companies today are making a difference, and discovering that the right CSR programs are also good business.
CSR as Innovation Engine
Early last decade, Coca Cola, one of the world’s most recognized brands, committed to conserving water, a tough challenge considering that water is the main ingredient in many of its products. So what did employees and Coca Cola’s partners do? They got analytical and creative—the formula for innovation. First, Coca Cola closely monitored its water efficiency, then used that data to tweak its processes. The result: a significant reduction of its water use ratio—the amount of water used per liter of product. Then the company started to get creative, recycling wastewater to reduce impact and improve water quality. Win-win.
Even better, since 2001, this same company has cut water usage by more than a fifth, and it has also launched local recycling and water replenishment programs, benefiting an estimated 1.6 million people worldwide (particularly in developing nations). Starting with a clear but ambitious goal, Coca Cola delivered social good and fostered an innovative mindset that has made it a better, more sustainable business for the long term.
Great and Good Products
Take Ben and Jerry’s—loyal customers pay more for its ice cream not just because it’s a great product, but because the brand identity is inextricably linked to social responsibility. Ben and Jerry’s commitment to social causes has built deep and lasting customer loyalty. Another example is the Safeway grocery chain in California. Almost all of the retail giant’s more than 1,700 stores feature a section that offers only locally grown produce. Sure, those fruits and vegetables are more expensive, but consumers who can connect a bunch of asparagus with a farmer in their own community have a much more powerful shopping—and brand—experience. All the while Safeway is helping to create a better environment and boosting the local economy.
CSR and Corporate DNA
We have all heard it again and again. Employees today want to feel the company they work for is more than just a bottom-line driven, soulless organization. They want engagement, mission, and satisfaction—in other words, a positive, reaffirming corporate culture. CSR is an essential part of that.
At Purdue Global, for instance, we have a company-wide volunteer day. Yes, we want to build teams and spirit, but also to encourage our employees to take action when it comes to the environment at work and in life. Most major companies have comparable employee-led affinity groups for a variety of causes, such as diversity and inclusion, and these programs make it possible to use CSR as a tool to weave environmental and social good into a company’s DNA. And that is at the heart of building a great culture. CSR must be aligned with a company’s overall mission.
I learned this lesson years ago before I became a full-time professor in Purdue Global’s graduate business program. Back then, I owned and operated three veterinary hospitals. At one hospital, we had a project where we rehabbed local birds that had been maimed (all too often they flew into windmills). This rehab project fit the mission of our hospital beautifully. Was it all about the bottom line? No, to the short-sighted observer simply measuring the resources used to help those birds, it would appear to make us less profitable. However, the goodwill we built with our clients and employees, in addition to the connections we made with local media, families, and schools, paid dividends in the long term.
All of these elements—innovation, good products, great and authentic workplace culture—tie together to make one simple point: good CSR isn’t optional today. It’s part and parcel of a successful organization. What’s more, these initiatives give more meaning to life in general. I don’t see a big separation between work and personal time—I believe a job is a reflection of who you are and what you stand for. We are at a transformative stage in which businesses must mold themselves to survive in the digital age. The companies that meet higher order needs in their CSR strategies will not only make a difference for the future—environmentally and socially—but will drive increased satisfaction for employees, customers, and shareholders alike. Now that’s what I call good business.
Carol Schubert is an adjunct professor at the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue Global. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global.
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