While scanning my morning news, I came upon this article: “The CVS Effect in Action: Avon, Honeymaid, Mozilla, Chili's Respond." As most know, CVS announced it would stop selling cigarettes and tobacco products at more than 7,000 stores by October 1. According to the article, companies like CVS that take a bold stance on an issue impacting human health, the environment or other social cause are only doing so to attract more sales. The article goes on to mention several examples of companies taking a stance ‘against’ a cause because its customers asked them to. Are companies really that motivated by profit that their conscious speaks so quietly? In my experience the answer is no.
Sure there are companies that go about their business without contemplating how their investments impact others, and campaign after campaign call the ‘big’ guys to stop deforesting for palm oil or to improve child labor in food production. There is some 'bad' stuff out there and the campaigns do work. But isn’t much of the ‘bad’ stuff about naivety? When provided the right education, and staffed with the right resources, can’t companies do good? More and more companies are hiring former non-profit staff to lead the development of CSR programs or foundation work. Increasingly companies recognize that having a staff of well-intentioned, globally connected professionals will help improve the efficacy of corporate philanthropy dollars and also aid in the development of a business case for social involvement.
Customers are simply asking for better products. Walmart’s announcement to sell organic products at lower costs is more proof that mainstream buying is now deeply tied to what’s good for us, our families and the planet. Companies are getting this.
I had a recent conversation with a mid-size food company. We were chatting about CSR goals and the company’s competitors' sustainability investments. We tried to find an example of a competitor not engaged in some form of sustainable work, whether on farm, throughout the value chain or at point of sale and it was nearly impossible. Certainly the larger food companies are investing in sustainability in the millions, but that even the smaller organizations recognize the critical nature of sustainable investment is a huge deal.
The pressure is on for companies to listen to their customers that want to associate with products that are made well, are healthy and don't cause our planet distress. This also means there is good opportunity for companies to profit while aligning with a cause. Customers will pay for this and resources prove it. The most reputable companies are spending an average of $100 million on CSR. According to a 2013 study on reputational risk, 68% of consumers trusted companies to make as much societal change as their governments.
While I get Ms. Sommer’s point that the customer prevails in right or wrong, I see the customer and company heading us more towards the right side of the equation and the push to make societal wrongs go right coming from both customer and company.