Is Social Responsibility Standing in a Green Shadow?

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Environmental sustainability has long stood at the heart of corporate social responsibility, and with good reason.  Companies that pursue the right green strategies can lower costs, gain a competitive advantage, and secure new customers – not to mention benefit the planet.  But in changing our light bulbs, certifying our buildings, and buying organic, did we forget about the “S” in CSR?

Every day, CSR leaders are taking bold steps to redefine the role of business in sustainability.  Wal-Mart has emerged as a clear leader in this space, pushing suppliers to meet its stringent green demands.  Even one-time environmental pariahs like FIJI water have neutralized most negative PR by offsetting its carbon footprint (and even promising to become – don’t laugh – carbon negative).

One-time doubters now nod approvingly at these efforts.  And yet, for all that Wal-Mart has done to become champions of the green movement, their shortcomings in terms of social impact seem to have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their hard-earned green halo.  When was the last time you read positive press about Wal-Mart’s wages, working conditions, and health care benefits?  And FIJI’s carbon neutrality is certainly relevant in negating their somewhat absurd business proposition, but how often do you hear about about the rampant droughts and poor water quality on the islands of Fiji?

I won’t be so cynical to charge that the green movement is being used to distract us from issues of human suffering, but what is preventing the business world from capitalizing on social responsibility like it has from environmental responsibility?

For starters, environmental impact is more immediately quantifiable and resonant.  Reducing one’s energy use is measurable both in kilowatts and in dollars.  But true social responsibility programs are starting to feel like CSR leftovers.  While environmental sustainability dovetails seamlessly with business success and brand allegiance, social responsibility seems to have been reduced to something companies do to check the box.

The good news is that the true leaders in CSR are extracting value from both environmental and social responsibility.  Two coffee giants – Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Starbucks – have been particularly effective in building relationships with its growers, helping ensure that each cup is both sustainable and ethical.

With coffee, it’s simple: treat your growers well and they’ll treat your product well.  But for many companies, strategic social responsibility initiatives require a different lens than that which is typically used for environmental initiatives.  The key is seeing that, while investment in social responsibility may not always be as quantifiable as environmentalism, the returns can still be powerful for the stakeholders involved.  As consumers, it’s up to us to help corporate leaders never take the “S” in CSR for granted.

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