17 Mar 2014
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is so often looked upon with scepticism by consumers, who believe many of today’s mega corporations are motivated not by a desire to do good, but a single-minded desire to turn profits. However enthusiastically companies commit to causes of social or environmental betterment, the majority of consumers still believe it to constitute some form of enlightened self-interest.
Crudely translated, enlightened self-interest states that the act of furthering public interest will serve one’s own at a later date, and although the theory’s strapline reads that companies “do well by doing good”, it can so often neglect ethicality in favour of financial returns.
It can even be argued that the most attractive component of responsible consumption is the social status that comes with it
The theory in practice can best be seen today in the minimum wage debate, with proponents of a rise arguing that while a hike would bump up costs and squeeze margins in the short term, it would eventually yield a return with regards to heightened employee productivity. Having said that, the principle carries with it an inherent air of illegitimacy in the sense that an ethical decision hinges on material gains.
Granted, there exists a natural tension between doing good and spending less for both consumers and businesses alike, but the balance between the two on the consumer side is rather more unequal than most would care to admit.
The realisation that CSR can amount to token gestures of goodwill is nothing new; after all, it’s entirely unreasonable to expect the corporate powerhouses of present day to be equal parts money making machine and insatiable do-gooder. What is only now beginning to gather momentum is the suggestion that consumers are as equally uncommitted to matters of social and environmental empowerment as their corporate counterparts.
A collaborative survey released last year by GlobeScan and SustainAbility, called The Regeneration Roadmap, shows that some 2.5 billion people – one third of the consumer class – identify themselves as ‘aspirational consumers’, with 92 percent exhibiting a desire for responsible consumption and 58 percent trusting brands to act in the best interest of society. These results are far from an indication of improved ethics, but instead act as a snapshot of the modern day consumer; that is, one who wishes to be seen as doing good without the financial consequences that come with it.
“Aspirationals represent the persuadable mainstream on the path to more sustainable behaviour. They love to shop, are influenced by brands, yet aspire to be sustainable in their purchases and actions,” says Raphael Bemporad, Co-Founder of BBMG, an organisation that co-wrote the Roadmap report.
“This consumer segment represents a significant opportunity for forward-looking brands to unite consumerism with social and environmental values.”
This “significant opportunity” can be interpreted in one of two ways by businesses: one being that there is a growing willingness among consumers to orchestrate responsible and sustainable change, the other being that CSR is just another means of making money under the veil of ethics.
Fairtrade fairy tales
Take Fairtrade for example, the foundation was set up 20 years ago and has since positioned itself as a hallmark of responsible and sustainable trade – although it has had to make a few concessions along the way. The foundation was originally thought to represent a general dissatisfaction among consumers with the various ways in which mega corporations were exploiting individuals on the way to a finished product. Since then, the organisation has faced a number of criticisms with regards to its actual effectiveness, and the consumer need only look so far as Nestlé for proof of the certification’s shortcomings.
In the instance of Nestlé, Fairtrade only asked that the manufacturer bought as little as 20 percent of its cocoa beans from Fairtrade-approved farms
In the instance of Nestlé, Fairtrade only asked that the manufacturer bought as little as 20 percent of its cocoa beans from Fairtrade-approved farms, which provoked criticism from some who claimed the label was confusing for consumers who were led to believe Nestle had overhauled its entire business. Regardless, consumers have not been dissuaded from buying Fairtrade products – far from it. The foundation has expanded quite extraordinarily since.
The certification system has not quite lead to the revolution that many hoped it would and in February this year the foundation launched a new scheme that grants companies an alternative Fairtrade mark if they include a single authorised ingredient in their products. The concession is even more surprising given that there exists a greater percentage of consumers today as opposed to the 1980s who want to hold irresponsible corporations to account; or so it would seem.
Perhaps this view is flawed, and, going back to The Regeneration Roadmap report, while there are more consumers that aspire to be sustainable, there are maybe less who are willing to a pay a premium for the resulting product. Perhaps, the modern day consumer has no real desire at all to make sustainable choices, but instead only wish to be seen making sustainable choices.
If the shoe fits
It can even be argued that the most attractive component of responsible consumption is the social status that comes with it, an observation that many companies have been quick to take advantage of in alerting consumers to their own brand of social responsibility.
Some companies have gone above and beyond the call of duty to make social responsibility more visible in all they do, not least of which being Toms Shoes, which has become synonymous with its non-profit affiliate Friends of Toms. Under the company’s ‘One for One’ initiative, for every pair of shoes sold, the company donates another pair to an impoverished child, and so the shoes in essence become a token of responsible consumption and a badge of honour.
“Today, the question is not whether consumers care about social impact, but which ones, how much and how to appeal to them,” said Nic Covey, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Nielsen in the company’s Global Survey on CSR.
“The answer isn’t necessarily a traditional cause-marketing campaign – general responsibility, sustainable innovation and purpose messaging might also engage these consumers. No matter the approach, savvy brands are figuring out how to hit this nerve.”
Despite what so many consumer surveys would have you believe, philanthropy is not the single-most defining factor of the modern day consumer. Instead, responsible consumption is self-interest under another name, and that same self-interest that has fuelled consumption since before the dawn of CSR.