Most of us can’t deny the enormous potential for harnessing the power and resources of corporations to effect social change. But we as consumers are skeptical about the motivation behind CSR efforts – we’re concerned about defensive PR tactics and “window dressing,” and wary of any activities that provide business benefit to the company.

We need to keep in mind, however, that CSR as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon. Most efforts, particularly those of older companies, were originally reactive in nature, born as responses to NGO or consumer outrage. Nike was a pariah in the 1990s due to sweatshop scandals, but today is a champion of worker rights and safe factory conditions. Likewise, Wal-Mart was lambasted for displacing mom-and-pop shops, but today prioritizes community development and sustainability. The roots of CSR initiatives do not negate the good that they are currently achieving.

What’s more, we criticize companies that are seen as benefiting from their CSR efforts, when in reality, this is exactly what we should be encouraging companies to do. Without doubt, Wal-Mart’s greening initiatives save the company money, but that doesn’t lessen the environmental impact they create. In order to be truly strategic – and to survive economic downturns or the pet causes of a new CEO – CSR initiatives need to address a key business challenge facing the company. Coca-Cola focuses on the quality and availability of water, a key input in its product production process, but also an issue of substantial social and environmental consequence. Instead of chastising companies for this kind of behavior, we should herald them for simultaneously creating both business and social benefit.

I agree that we should set a high bar for corporations’ role as good citizens, insist that they operate with an eye towards social and environmental good, and demand transparency in their efforts. But perhaps we should stop judging so harshly why companies first joined the CSR game, or how they may benefit from participating.

We as consumers have a unique and powerful ability to influence corporate behavior – let’s use it to motivate those companies that are still defensive, reactive, and focused on window dressing. But let’s also give credit where credit is due.


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