From Socially Responsible to Socially Just

Natalie Burg

Eighteen months ago, corporate social responsibility programs were gaining increased popularity in the business world. According to the Governance & Accountability Institute, 90% of S&P 500 companies published corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports in 2019 – up from 20% just a decade ago.  

And then, 2020 happened. In the wake of the pandemic and a summer of unrest, companies were forced to grapple with some big questions: Was their CSR work socially responsible enough? Is social responsibility even the right goal when consumers loudly demand social justice?

“Companies are feeling increasing pressure from their stakeholders – whether that’s employers, customers, vendors, etc. – that just isn’t being answered in a satisfactory way by their existing CSR,” says Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and executive coach. “Perhaps the entire premise of CSR is no longer enough for the current standard of social responsibility or social impact that stakeholders are looking for from companies.”

A few weeks of brands tweeting and donating in solidarity with protesters later, a new era that went beyond CSR had seemingly dawned. The questions that followed became increasingly complex: Was a tweet enough? Was a donation? What could a company do to make a real difference in the world?

According to Zheng, those are difficult questions that have difficult answers. “This is social justice,” Zheng says. “This isn’t easy. Social justice has never been easy.” But with the appropriate strategy – and focus on the issues, rather than immediate ROI – companies can work toward the right outcomes for their employees, customers, communities, and other stakeholders.

Looking for Proof

The sheen on conventional CSR had started to dull even before the summer of 2020. In January of that year, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich penned the op-ed “Corporate Social Responsibility Is a Scam” for the news site Truthdig, calling out the hypocrisy of many corporations that hid egregious labor practices behind their sunny CSR metrics.

So when protests erupted months later, the pressure on companies to prove that their CSR efforts were sincere and impactful came hard and fast. The media compiled list after list of the actions brands took: bold tweets, diverse hiring initiatives, donations, commitments to increasing supplier diversity, and more.

“Some companies were jumping the gun and saying, ‘Okay, what outcomes are good enough? What’s the fastest way that we can appease?'” Zheng says. “I would argue that that’s not effective.”

Traditional CSR is easy for companies to execute because leaders pick and choose what they measure. Effective corporate social justice, as Zheng calls it, requires listening to your stakeholders and finding out where they need you to measure and improve upon. It also requires a holistic approach to building trust and working together to solve systemic problems, not a quick fix.

“While I will never complain [about] $20,000 making it to a nonprofit, my question is, to what extent is that money actually reflecting an across-the-board commitments by the company?” Zheng says. She points out that a single donation can be seen as a performance, where a long-term strategic plan to fund organizations working to solve systemic issues negatively affecting your employees or community is an investment in social justice.

Work in Progress

By that definition, nearly every quick reaction companies had in the summer of 2020 seemed, rightly or wrongly, imperfect at best. That is, unless you were a company that already had a track record of social justice work. One example is Ben & Jerry’s. When the ice cream brand published a blog post titled “Silence is not an option,” it was backed up by its decade of actions on criminal justice reform, refugee resettlement, LGBT and Indigenous rights, climate action, and more.

Also key to Ben & Jerry’s pursuit of corporate social justice is the company’s belief that they haven’t gotten it quite right.

“We consider Ben & Jerry’s an aspiring social justice company because we have far to go,” said CEO Matthew McCarthy during The Conference Board’s Building a More Civil & Just Society Conference, held in March, 2021. “We’ve been at it for almost 43 years, but in a lot of ways, we’re still just scratching the surface.”

In addition to their long history of political and nonprofit work, Ben & Jerry’s is currently working with franchisees, suppliers, and employees to figure out why racial disparities still exist among those groups. In the case of franchisees, McCarthy said Ben & Jerry’s is trying to learn more about the barriers to entry for people of color, including having enough capital, so they can make the opportunity to own a franchise more equitable.

For other companies, social justice work looks like IBM publicly supporting DACA recipients or HP partnering with HBCUs in an effort to double their numbers of Black executives. In addition to promoting a dedicated collection of films that feature Black actors, creators, and stories, Netflix announced plans to shift $100 million of its holdings into financial institutions that support Black communities. Airbnb’s Open Homes project helps facilitate free temporary housing for refugees and asylum seekers. Depending on the challenges in each business’s community and among their stakeholders, investing in early childhood education, providing childcare for employees, paying a living wage, ensuring access to affordable healthcare can all be important steps.

Getting Started

A meaningful social justice initiative can only come “in conversation with communities that are affected by the inequalities that the company is trying to fix,” Zheng says. Companies should meet with employees, community organizations, and other groups of stakeholders to determine what the company’s social justice goals should be, and what actions are needed to pursue them.

“The goal of those initiatives is to build transparency and, most importantly, trust,” Zheng says. “Trust is the currency of any change efforts that companies need to make around DE&I [diversity, equity, and inclusion].” Holding ongoing conversations with stakeholders is how Ben & Jerry’s has built social justice initiatives that their employees, customers, and community trust.

“Values are really where it’s all at, and values come from your people,” McCarthy said. “They don’t come from your agencies.”

It is not quick work. Social justice work requires listening, internalizing, and not picking issues to address because they’re measurable or reportable, but because they matter to the company’s stakeholders.

Lagging Indicator

Of course, initiatives rooted in lengthy conversations and trust-building are hard to promote, too. That, says Zheng, is just fine in the beginning. Shouting one’s praises shouldn’t happen on the front end of social justice work.

“Marketing should be used as a lagging indicator of progress,” Zheng says. “You can talk about your progress, but you have to talk about your progress after the progress has already happened.”

Ben & Jerry’s releases a Social & Environmental Assessment Report annually, which summarizes their progress on the issues the company so famously cares about. They prove that while social justice work may be hard to measure and market at the beginning, after more than 20 years, reporting on progress is possible.

“Putting your business in the service of your values – that’s how you can measure,” McCarthy said. “Do we have metrics for this? Are the people, the planet, the land, the workers, the animals – are they better off? Yes, sir.”

At a time when 68% of consumers believe they are capable of influencing corporations’ behavior and 86% expect CEOs to take a stand on societal issues, the ability to prove your company is living its values, has built trust with its stakeholders, and is making a real, positive impact on the world is a powerful asset.