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Walking the Talk
Beyond One-Off CSR:
How Brands Can Combat Inequities Over the Long Term

Reversing ingrained social inequities is critical to achieving the UN SDGs and averting catastrophic climate change. The pandemic has laid bare the many costs of inequality — now is the time for brands to make good on their promises to address this global issue.

In the past year, inequality has become an increasingly mainstream global issue — and one that companies are increasingly focused on. While it’s a pervasive, long-term issue, social inequities have been exacerbated by a pandemic that has put small businesses and low-wage workers out of work, while many large companies are seeing record profits and soaring stock prices. Can the same companies and brands that are benefiting from the current environment also be the ones who act to meaningfully reduce social inequities?

Inequality is more than just income or wealth. Access to education, health, clean air, water and housing are all barriers that inhibit many people from growing their wealth or income. Race plays a role, too — as centuries of discrimination against native peoples and communities of color in the United States, for example, have resulted in inter-generational inequality that remains pervasive to this day; it was a guiding force in last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the racial equity gap in the US has grown: Between 1992 and 2016, college-educated white people saw their wealth increase by 96 percent while that of college-educated Black people fell by 10 percent.

While many brands have been happy to release statements and pledges to make donations or address social inequalities, there’s hesitation to do more due the difficulty in measuring how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) actually impacts the issue.

“It’s very hard to measure and report progress — unlike with climate, or environmental, where it’s relatively easier to set targets — and that makes it difficult for companies to tell their stories externally,” Perrine Bouhana, a director at GlobeScan, a public opinion research consultancy that does reputation, brand, sustainability, engagement, and trends research, told Sustainable Brands™.

But that’s no longer an excuse — as both societal pressure and the urgency of the issue necessitate that brands act boldly and quickly if they are serious about addressing a problem that has been ignored for far too long.

Going beyond one-off CSR

Traditional CSR has, too often, been driven by a desire for good publicity. This means one-off events, press releases, and commitments — like last year’s surge in statements of corporate support for Black Lives Matter. According to EVERFI — an international technology company driving social change through education to address the most challenging issues affecting society — that’s an ineffectual approach.

“CSR initiatives frequently are one-off [that] require a surge of effort and expense — resulting in a quick tick of positive PR that, to leadership, seems to dissipate quickly, making it even harder for companies to view CSR as part of a more robust profound, ongoing strategy,” EVERFI stated in a recently released white paper.

While positive, short-term publicity can seem like a win for a brand, consumers are increasingly savvy and can often spot the difference between a brand that is committed, versus one that is just doing it to tick a box. If a company really wants to increase its social impact, it needs to embed this into the organization — a shift that EVERFI believes is already happening, as “leaders are waking up to the benefits of social impact ... There is a monumental shift towards investing in activities that enrich an organization’s community.”

Thinking outside the box

It also requires thinking beyond your core business to all other areas to which a business connects — partners, suppliers, even consultants. Take, for example, Intel: The tech company is best known for its semiconductors; but its business is broad and often requires legal counsel for a variety of reasons. The legal field is severely lacking in diversity — at large US firms, only about 20 percent of full equity partners are women, and only about 8 or 9 percent are minorities. So, Intel offered an ultimatum: If you don’t make progress on diversity starting this year, Intel will no longer retain you.

“Intel cannot abide the current state of progress — it is not enough,” Steven R. Rodgers, Intel’s EVP and general counsel, said in a statement. “At Intel, below average and average on diversity is no longer good enough to be a member of our regular outside-counsel roster."

Electronic Arts (EA) is best known for its video games, but the company realized that it could play a role in bringing more diversity into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education. So, it launched an EA Play to Learn Digital Education Program to reach more students and ensure that they can play a role in creating the technologies of tomorrow.

Another example of meaningful action is the education company Pearson. Its Sustainable Business Plan 2030 lays out a roadmap for how learning can create a better world — it includes pillars around reducing barriers and increasing equity in learning, with an acknowledgment of the need for eliminating bias; and representing customers, in all their diversity, in their materials.

Scaling up impacts

A recent report from the Chicago Booth Review laid out the challenge: Income inequality poses a major threat to business. Simply recognizing racism and inequality is not enough; brands must play a leading role — and investors are, increasingly, demanding it.

Bouhana urges brands to stop waiting for the perfect campaign or opportunity and be willing to experiment more. Inaction is worse than doing your best and failing, as the latter also provides data on how to improve.

“Transparency is important,” Bouhana says. “Stakeholders don’t just want to hear good news from companies — they also want to hear about how companies struggle, how it’s not easy; and how they are going to look at the problem differently, in partnerships with new stakeholders, to address something they understand that is difficult.”

The next few years will be critical. If we don’t reverse ingrained social inequities, we’ll never achieve the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and will likely fail to make meaningful progress on climate change. The pandemic has laid bare the many costs of inequality — now is the time for brands to act on their promises and address this global issue before it’s too late.

“It’s great to see there’s genuine intent to address this issue,” Bouhana said. “The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement means everybody has realized the significance of inequality and committed to make a difference; but it’s a big challenge.”