Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the idea or practice of companies being accountable to themselves, their stakeholders, and the public. This takes many forms; some companies have an entire department and staff dedicated to the mission, while some might plan one yearly benefit event. Others may build CSR practices into their product lifecycle. It’s a spectrum of both effort and effect.
From fossil fuel firms to fast fashion megabrands, corporations are generally associated with pollution and waste in the popular imagination. It’s understandable for consumers to be skeptical about publicly traded companies’ attempts at do-gooding. To think that it’s all just to appease the public enough that the company remains generally reputable and successful, pleasing stakeholders. Sure, this is true for some, but legitimate good deeds abound.
This past summer, rideshare behemoth Uber ran an ad campaign featuring billboards telling customers, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” This messaging feels shallow at best and deceptive at worst when you consider that at the same time they were funneling millions of dollars towards a “yes” vote on California Proposition 22, which proposed to permanently define rideshare drivers and other gig economy workers as contractors, not employees, locking them out of benefits and other quality-of-life aspects that the government requires employers to give their employees under the law. According to one study, 78% of Uber drivers in the company’s home city of San Francisco are people of color—the hypocrisy is clear. In a country where the average white family’s wealth is over $700,000 higher than the average black family’s, an attack on labor rights (like Proposition 22) only deepens the roots and supports the structure of racial inequality. Racism is so much more than words, and anti-racism is much more than a preachy billboard. This is an example of weak, lip-service CSR. That said, the measure passed, and while the disingenuous ad campaign raised some controversy, it clearly didn’t tank the company.
Though there are many shallow and hypocritical CSR efforts, there are companies doing it right. The world-stopping tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for well-heeled, would-be do-gooder businesses to step up and lead. Below are five examples, listed in no order of importance.
The iconic outdoor apparel brand, founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, has long been a shining example of what CSR can and should look like. Just as the pandemic became a reality in the United States, where the brand is based, they closed all of their workplaces, including warehouses, for what ended up being longer than three weeks. Of course, many businesses had to take similar actions anyway due to local or state mandates, but Patagonia also ensured that every one of their 3,000+ employees kept their regular pay. This is business as usual for an industry leader that has long maintained excellent environmental and labor practices.
The supermarket giant, which encompasses multiple brands (such as Safeway and Vons), announced early in the pandemic that they were committing $50 million towards hunger relief in the 2,200 US neighborhoods where they have stores. Their efforts helped keep food banks stocked and helped distribute food to children, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups. In addition, they hired more than 50,000 people in the first six weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when unemployment was rampant and relief checks were slow to come. They also temporarily raised frontline worker pay, as did some other grocery companies, but that didn’t last too long, as with other brands.
Infosys, founded in India in 1981, is a massive multinational information technology firm with a strong CSR track record. They have an arm of the corporation, Infosys Foundation, dedicated to philanthropy. At the end of March, early in the pandemic, they committed INR 100 crore, or $13.6 million USD, to the fight against Covid-19 in India. This financial injection mainly supported the expansion of medical facilities and the purchasing of PPE and other medical equipment for frontline healthcare workers.
Microsoft, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has long been associated with corporate responsibility. With Mr. Gates, the company’s cofounder, worth $129 billion at time of writing, there is certainly a huge responsibility to give back. The company implemented multiple measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and has continued to do so. In the final month of 2020, they projected a further $60 million in support, over a month and a half, to nonprofits local to their home state of Washington.
GE is another massive company with a significant CSR department, called GE Foundation. In 2019, the foundation gave $41 million of the GE Family’s total $80 million. What’s interesting about their philanthropy—this is not unique to them, many companies (for example, Apple and Intuit) have similar programs—is their GE Foundation Matching Gifts Program. What makes them special is that GE created the concept of corporate donation matching in 1954. They provide a 1:1 monetary match with employees’ personal charitable donations. This sort of program is amazing—it means that smaller organizations, with particular relevance to individual employees, that big CSR department might otherwise overlook, get twice the aid they would have otherwise. In a year when many small nonprofits and local aid organizations sprang up to address government failure and people’s immediate needs, that makes a big difference.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not over. Thousands across the world are still jobless. People have lost their homes. At time of writing, we have surpassed 2 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide. Some wealthy corporations have stepped up—some have not. Hopefully, this marks an increased trend in CSR giving and general impact, even as we move past the pandemic. Hunger, poverty, access to healthcare—these are issues that existed before the pandemic and will exist after. As a growing number of companies hold value larger than some nation’s GDP, it is certainly their responsibility to give back.
The numbers show that meaningful CSR programs help everyone—the company, the shareholders, and the public. Revenue and market share can rise and employee turnover can drop. A challenge to all companies: Do good. Do better. ShareYourself prides itself on enabling community leaders to act on the change they wish to enact in their communities. We always have an extensive roster of projects that could use your help.