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Walking the Talk
Issues and Values in the Age of Pandemics, Disruption and Division

I call the tying together of identity, values and purchasing “corporate citizenshop,” and it is growing — even in the midst of a pandemic, global economic issues, political uncertainty and much more.

Currently, the world is split. There are those with the resources to wait out the pandemic as it surges again, and those without that ability. Those who can order pizzas and binge-watch cable shows; and those who can’t, because they have to work on what we now call the ‘front line.’ Those who do or don’t have access to healthcare. Those whose billions grew even, as millions of others were laid off or had their businesses crushed by recession.

We knew all this, knew these divides existed. But it wasn’t until we saw minimum-wage earners super-spreading the coronavirus in meat-packing plants and grocery clerks dubbed “essential workers” that it truly came home to us. Overburdened hospital workers, too, in makeshift PPE — who themselves did not have the wherewithal to stay home safe — were living, COVID-breathing embodiments of this divide.

Still, the advent of the pandemic was so impactful, it actually competed to push these inequities from our consciousness even as it was shining a bright light upon them. With so much focus on infection and death, bandwidth for the millions who slipped into poverty was in short supply. Even a global recession and major impacts to planetary travel and politics were mere corollaries.

As the pandemic surged around the world, stock-art giant Getty Images wanted to know if it pushed out everything else from people’s minds. The company combed its vast customer database of more than a billion image searches, then commissioned a third-party survey of more than 10,000 people across 36 nations and 15 languages.
The study found that six long, pandemic-laden months later, consumers were indeed turning their attention to other critical issues — concerns that could be funneled into four basic categories: sustainability, wellness, an area they called “realness,” and technology.

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Sustainability was, they learned, trending upwards “quite against expectations.” Then again, that makes sense — certainly it’s tough to restart an economy or solve social problems when roads are flooded and vast swaths of forest are on fire.

The consumers who flagged sustainability said they were likely to pay 10-15 percent more for products or services from companies that:

  • use sustainable practices

  • are aligned with their values

  • have transparent business practices

  • care about the wellbeing, safety, and security of customers.

In other words, even in a time of enormous tension, physical fear of infection and massive systemic inequities, the world is also split into those who are working to hold back climate change and those who are not; and that split is largely along the lines of personal values. This finding aligns with the main point of my forthcoming book, The Value of Values — which is that values affect behavior, and both impact profitability.

Supporting a company you believe in takes your actions out of the realm of pure dollars-and-cents and into one where values matter. Purchasing an air conditioner from a brand that’s an environmental leader will not have a dramatic impact on sustainability (though it’s better), but it does add a “feature” to the list — a less conventional feature than the cooling power or the ability to control the temperature from your smartphone. It’s the ability to feel better about the purchase — better about its direct environmental impact and about supporting a company that is a sustainability leader (and maybe even a catalyst).

I call this tying together of identity, values and purchasing “corporate citizenshop” — and it is continuing to grow. This isn’t new; people have been buying, in part, based on values for decades; and pioneers in things such as organic food, cruelty-free cosmetics, and socially responsible investing have helped reshape industries. Both companies and researchers have been documenting the increasing importance of values for years.

But there are two aspects of this that are new:

First, we now know that it is strong enough to grow — even in the midst of a pandemic, global economic issues, political uncertainty, and much more.

Second, the increasing inclusion of values in purchasing decisions is true for both supporters and opponents of sustainability. Research my company performed in late 2019 (before COVID) revealed an interesting phenomenon — a slice of consumers who, when asked, “if two products are equal, including price” would they be more or less likely to buy the one made by a perceived sustainability leader, gave the sustainability leader a thumbs down.^1^

In fact, no matter how we asked the question, a consistent minority not only refused to support sustainable products but said they’d actively punish companies who did. This behavior seems to have come out of their political worldview — not whether or not they believed in climate change. They too, in other words, were acting upon their values.

If the most important basis of trust is, as the Arthur Page Society asserts, “mutuality… based on shared values or interests,”^2^ then it’s clear the two groups — those who preferred the sustainability leader and those who avoided it — had widely diverging values.

But, in spite of this division, bringing values to the workplace is good — and not just because those who preferred the sustainable company’s product outnumbered those who avoided it.

Values make companies money in many ways — "The Value of Values" isn’t the least bit euphemistic — and help people see meaning in their work.

We know, for example, that there is enormous submerged value — value that runs invisibly under the surface — in having a company’s values out front. That attracts, lands and retains talented individuals who appreciate what the company stands for and is doing. In addition, people feel better when they bring their values to the workplace, as my friend, Bea Boccalandro, delineates in her book, Do Good at Work.

The pandemic is currently surging again in quite a few places, and that’s bound to be top-of-mind for many people. Yet, there is more on the minds of humanity than just COVID; and companies would be wise to heed that in their efforts and messaging. Getty notes in its research that, amid the chaos, people are longing for positive messages, good news they can cling to, upbeat images of things that match their values.

Even as the virus dominates the headlines, and many of our lives, we know we must still prepare for what happens when it recedes. As the Getty research suggests, a lot of us are doing just that.

1 Luckily, many more respondents gave the sustainability leader a thumbs up than gave it a thumbs down, so it is, on net, positive to be a leader. But that some avoided the leader is still a striking finding.

2 The other two elements in Page’s model are: (1) Balance of Power – where risks and opportunities are shared by parties; and (2) Trust Safeguards – that limit vulnerability in the context of power imbalances. While there are different models of trust, shared values are a common thread among them.