CSR’s Coming of Age

Either popular perception or conventional wisdom or a little bit of both used to suggest that corporate social responsibility (CSR) was more or less a pure marketing ploy used by brands to increase their market share. Put another way, were brands merely paying lip service to this notion that corporations should be socially responsible. At the Sustainable Brands 2013 conference held in San Diego earlier this month, there were clear examples that some of the biggest brands are taking an active role in ensuring that they are good corporate citizens. Yes, part of it is marketing, but honestly the work that is being done is a game changer and is improving the lives of people around the world. Yet, there is still a piece of me that believes that government needs to play a bigger role in pushing corporations to become good corporate citizens. Absent government intervention with either a carrot or a stick, what is being done today by some of the world’s largest brands is quite remarkable.

Take for example Phillips Lighting and the company’s lighting center project in Africa. The company is installing solar powered LED systems with a storage component on land the size of a small soccer pitch. This enables communities which previously did not have light to engage with one another after the sun goes down. The result – healthier communities where kids can study and townspeople can gather.

In the auto industry, BMW will soon launch the i line with the i3 and the i8. Both the i3 and the i8 are full EV’s and will use a significant amount carbon fiber all the while having the driving dynamics consumers have come to associate with BMW’s. Ford, which has the Ford Focus EV also recently launched the Ford Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid version of its popular Ford Fusion model. Ford has also partnered up with SunPower to offer Ford customers a direct link to a solar installer if consumers want both. Looks like the integrated Solar/EV market that WattPeople pitched with the solar EV bundle is coming to reality.

While the lighting industry and the automotive industry might be obvious industries where major brands have embraced corporate social responsibility and run with it, other industries might surprise you. Take Coca-Cola for instance. Irrespective of where you fall in the political spectrum over the often talked about sugar tax, Coca-Cola’s business relies on water. Water is increasingly becoming a commodity in short supply. The company is working to balance its water use by replenishing an amount of water equivalent to what the company uses in its finished products. In the world of recycling, the question no longer is what can be recycled? The question should be what cannot be recycled? Apparently cigarettes can now be recycled and TerraCycle can help you do that. There is a surprise around every corner.

In Cone Communications 2013 Global CSR Study, the company notes that going forward, the question is not whether companies will engage in corporate social responsibility, but how they will create real and meaningful impact. The examples described above demonstrate that companies are creating real and meaningful impact. While we don’t see or hear about these activities daily, it seems the future is looking bright and CSR is no longer just a marketing tool, but a process that is creating real and meaningful impact.

Walter Wang is Managing Editor of CleanTechies. Follow Walter on Twitter: @energytaxprof

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