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Building a Big-Business CSR Strategy

Reading time: 6 minutes

Five tips for making a difference

It’s no longer enough to do business just for the sake of turning a profit. Making a difference socially and environmentally offers a competitive advantage – and more consumers now demand it.
An emerging segment of the population wants to know that their dollars not only purchase quality products and services, but also contribute to the greater good. They’re driven by a sense of purpose, and they want to support brands that will leave the world a better place.
Seventy-eight percent of consumers want companies to create a positive impact on society, according to a 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study. Younger adults are accelerating this trend. Forty-five percent of millennials polled by the Shelton Group seek out a company’s environmental or social practices for at least one-quarter of their purchasing decisions. Ninety percent say they are more likely to buy from a brand whose practices they trust, and even more will recommend that brand to others.
This movement is here to stay as climate change looms in the minds of young adults; more than three-quarters told the Shelton Group they’re concerned about climate impacts on their lives. If this is true among millennials, research suggests it’s even more so among Generation Z.
Large corporations have long recognized the bottom-line and reputational benefits of commitments to corporate social responsibility (CSR), but small and midsize firms tend to lag behind. You don’t have to have a C-suite budget to weave CSR into every level of your work; in fact, you’re leaving reputational benefits and money on the table if you don’t get started.
Here are five ways to embark on CSR and make a difference:

1. Focus your strategy

Business schools teach four areas of a CSR pyramid: philanthropic, ethical, legal and economic. You want to satisfy all four, but maybe one area merits special focus. To tailor sustainability efforts to your collective culture and passions, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a handy framework. These 17 Global Goals include everything from ending poverty and hunger to protecting life on land and water -- with plentiful ways for businesses to get involved.
For professional help with baby steps on your strategy, SCORE, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, can connect with a mentor. And myriad independent sustainability consultants – independent ones or groups such as BSR – do deep dives.
If your CSR plan is fully do-it-yourself, conduct some research. Read classic sustainability books, such as Natural Capitalism or Cradle to Cradle; feeds from sites such as TriplePundit or GreenBiz, or Business Ethics and CR magazines; and newsletters from business nonprofits like Ceres or the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. But big-picture goals disappear if you’re breaking a law; the EPA’s link-packed small-business resource guide (PDF) helps with environmental compliance.

2. Engage a community

Tapping into a sustainability community promises ongoing information and inspiration. Professionals mingle at regular Green Drinks happy hours in most U.S. cities, and from Albania to Vietnam. You might join or form a Meetup group to “find your people.” If nobody shows up, consult your favorite charity for ideas. To network online, don’t forget Facebook groups and Reddit conversations. Then meet some of those far-flung allies face-to-face by splurging on an industry conference, such as Greenbuild for the building industry -- or more generally, BSR, GreenBiz or Sustainable Brands.
Big enterprises often put rivalries aside to accelerate an environmental cause, and so should you. For example, by bringing together would-be competitors with nonprofits and academia, the ReFed coalition tackles food waste and the Sustainability Consortium strives to improve consumer products. There’s even a Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. While these sorts of efforts generally involve large players than your SMB, there may be an opportunity to get involved with a coalition in your industry -- or at least use their free website reports and tools.
Political advocacy is another way businesses increasingly demonstrate their collective power. Signing on to the We Are Still In coalition, for example, shows support for the Paris Agreement on climate change.

3. Engage your employees

Sustainability doesn’t just benefit customer relations; it helps with employee retention, too. Eighty-six percent of millennials told PwC they might leave a firm that didn’t reflect personal values. Employee fulfillment, on the other hand, rubs off in client interactions. Apply the feel-good efforts you share with consumers in more detail internally.
Team building can kick off with Earth Day promotions, an annual Arbor Day tree planting, an Ocean Conservancy beach cleanup or the Audubon Society’s February bird count, but it doesn’t have to end there. There’s no shortage of options for ongoing volunteerism at VolunteerMatch, which offers business assistance for a fee. An employer matching program for charitable donations keeps the generosity going.
Gamification apps can integrate into day-to-day business practices, letting you assign staff points and prizes for eco-friendly actions. WeSpire’s platform lets companies launch custom programs to reward employee efforts, say, to shrink their personal carbon footprints or to benefit underserved communities. SAP’s TwoGo app helps you encourage carpooling. RecycleBank enables businesses to dole out rewards to consumers who recycle well or unplug appliances.

4. Communicate with transparency

Of course your website, brochures and physical plant should reflect your good intentions and actions. But it’s not enough to brandish a buzzword-driven mission statement, display feel-good stock photos and tweet every now and then. Only 36 percent of millennials told the Shelton Group that they trust companies, so it’s essential to walk the talk. Be transparent with employees and consumers; they’re only a smartphone swipe away from a scorching online review. The 24/7 speeds and feeds of social media demand sincerity that you back up with proof. Offer metrics. Name names. Tout real goals you have met. Don’t risk a greenwashing accusation; the FTC offers green guides to help.
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) makes the case for small and midsize companies to consider sustainability reporting (PDF) to unlock reputation, attract capital, engage stakeholders and improve competition -- and its database provides examples.

5. Wear the brand

Displaying a vetted sustainability seal of approval demonstrates your commitment. Getting certified as a B Corporation, for example, shows a company meets “rigorous standards to balance purpose and planet,” joining 2,500 others in the business of everything from accounting to waste management. Although that includes big names such as Patagonia and Danone North America, most B Corporations are a smaller array of retailers, law practices, bakers and beyond.
Less time-consuming ways to commit to a cause include One percent for the planet and Pledge 1%, by which you donate one percent of profits or intangibles, such as employee time. Buying carbon offsets such as Terrapass are another consideration, especially if solar panels don’t fit your budget.
Among the seemingly countless resources and certifications for small businesses, many harness your purchasing power. If you sell consumables, stock Fair Trade-certified items. If you run a bed-and-breakfast, check out Rainforest Alliance certification. It’s a no-brainer to purchase FSC-certified office furniture, or printers and laptops with EnergyStar or EPEAT labeling. Midsize companies may pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) validation for their headquarters, but even the smallest office can get hip to biophilic design principles, adding plants and natural light to enhance human well-being.
Sixty-four percent of consumers in major global markets want CEOs rather than government to lead change, as Edelman’s Earned Brand report (PDF) describes. Consumers are calling; make sure your company is listening. It’s never too late to lead on CSR, but it’s even better to be recognized as an early mover.

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