Saturday, December 19, 2009

Corporate Social Responsibility Is Good Business Strategy

Lou Miller has owned and operated Big Apple Bagels in Apple Valley, Minnesota for the past eleven years. At the end of each day, she donates whatever bagels she has left over to a variety of non-profits, such as food shelves, veterans groups, and schools. While Lou can't say for sure whether the donations have significantly improved her bottom line, she does know that this small gesture of giving away excess food on a daily basis has generated good will for her business. Most importantly, to Lou, it just feels like the right thing to do.

Some business leaders believe that their only obligation is to their shareholders. The sole objective in business, these managers assert, is to improve profitability for the benefit of the owners of the firm. Increasingly, however, American consumers are rewarding businesses that see their mission more broadly. Many companies, big and small, are becoming aware of and acting upon an important economic reality: corporate social responsibility is good business strategy.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) involves the array of steps that a company can take to contribute back to the community: philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, cause-marketing (for example, providing business expertise to non-profit groups), and citizenship, especially around environmental sustainability. While it is no doubt more difficult to precisely measure return on investment for these types of activities, abundant data demonstrates the economic benefits of CSR. DePaul University conducted a study in 2002 that compared the performance of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens from Business Ethics magazine against the remainder of the S & P 500. In measurements such as sales growth, profit, and return on equity, the socially responsible companies exceeded the competition by ten percent.

A Time magazine article from September 2009, entitled "The Responsibility Revolution," cites a 2007 Goldman Sachs report that concluded that companies with a focus on sustainability outperformed the overall market, frequently by a significant margin. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently completed a study that showed a better return on assets for companies that reported sustainability information over those firms that did not share such data.

Time conducted a poll which showed that more than 60 percent of Americans have purchased organic products since January 2009. Almost 40 percent say that they bought products this year because of the social or political values of the company that sold the merchandise. Time says, "What we are discovering now, in the most uncertain economy since [the Great Depression], is that enlightened self-interest- call it a shared sense of responsibility- is good economics… We are starting to put our money where our ideals are."

Many organizations have long understood the importance of CSR. More than 30 years ago, 23 Minnesota companies formed the Keystone Program. Participating firms each contribute at least 2 percent of annual pre-tax earnings back into their communities. Today, there are more than 200 members of Keystone.

Target Corporation- a charter Keystone member as Dayton Hudson- contributes 5 percent of pre-tax earnings, in good times and in bad. I recently spoke with my friend and former colleague Gail Dorn, who was for many years the Vice President of Communications and Community Relations at Target.

Gail talked about the enduring culture and tradition of giving back at Target, and indicated there were many times when it would have been easy to cut the program. She recalled, "Analysts would challenge us, asking Why are you giving away 5 percent? [Target leadership] ignored their pleas. Even though a return on investment was difficult to measure, Target's community programs generated incredible good will. Our customers loved that we always took the extra step to become integrated in the community. This was particularly helpful in 1987 when Dayton Hudson sought public support to fend off a hostile takeover attempt."

Another mighty Minnesota corporation that appreciates the importance of CSR is the Best Buy Company. An article in the December 7, 2009 issue of Fortune magazine describes Best Buy's free recycling program. Since March, when Best Buy began offering free recycling of TVs, computers, and any other electronic gadgets, more than 25 million pounds of old devices have been turned in at Best Buy's 1004 U.S. store locations. Fortune says, "The company's massive recycling program seems expensive to run, until you look at all the benefits: a green reputation, a focus on service, and a fresh way to get customers into the stores. No wonder Best Buy has learned to love old TVs and eight-track tape players."

Best Buy's leadership understands that the take-back program will probably be, at best, a break-even proposition. Nevertheless, P & L consequences aside, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn described how he feels when a customer drops off an old TV set: "I'm happy because it helps make the connection between Best Buy and the customer and the community."

Sometimes, financial outcomes are not the most important consideration in business.

Small and medium-sized companies should take heed of the responsibility revolution as well. Time points out that shoppers consider not only the nature of the product they buy, but where it came from. More than 80 percent of consumers say they have deliberately supported local and neighborhood businesses (like Big Apple Bagels) that demonstrate a corporate conscience and concern for the environment. Also, there are more than 250 socially responsible investment mutual funds (consisting generally of companies that do not profit from tobacco, oil, or child labor), that today manage approximately $2.7 trillion in wealth.

Time concludes, "… Americans are recalibrating our sense of what it means to be a citizen, not just through voting or volunteering, but also through commerce: by what we buy… That's evidence of a changing mind-set, a new kind of social contract among consumers, business, and government. We are seeing the rise of the citizen consumer- and the beginning of a responsibility revolution." Indeed, smart companies today have seen the future and are taking action. These companies know that corporate social responsibility is good business strategy.

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