Private vs. public: the rise of corporate social responsibility

The words 'We care right?'

The concept of business philanthropy raises valid misgivings. The merging of private and public concerns can prove a murky playing field—when businesses give back to the community, is it meaningful and productive? Or merely an empty PR exercise designed to distract from more nefarious behind-the-scenes practices?

It can be argued that the socially destructive forces of capitalism make the notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’ a contradiction in terms. But one thing is certain: where big and small businesses operate, they are increasingly being held accountable for their actions. According to the latest World Economic Forum Global Shapers Survey, the millennial generation views climate change and conflict as the critical issues of our time. There is real power in numbers—half of the world’s population is now under the age of 30, and the progressive youth demographic is critical of big business practices that harm the environment and the overall welfare of humanity.

More and more, people are demanding social impact awareness from the businesses they support, and they’re willing to boycott those that don’t live up to the task. Research shows that consumers respond positively to corporate social responsibility, and will align themselves with companies that invest time and resources in doing good.

Many big brands—such as Xerox, TOMS Shoes, and Levi Strauss, to name but a few—are leading the way in the field of corporate responsibility and founding a wide range of initiatives, from food banks to conservation to workers’ rights. A number of companies also offer volunteering schemes, in which employees are encouraged to spend some of their working hours getting involved in their local community.

When it comes to awareness-raising however, even the biggest brands can miss the mark. One notable failure is the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert, which led to a wave of criticism surrounding the inappropriateness of co-opting protest movements in order to sell products. A more successful endeavour was the Heineken ‘Worlds Apart: An Experiment’ commercial, which paired up people of opposing views to engage in productive debate around the issues of transgender rights, climate change and feminism.

It’s clear that thought-provoking sentiments win over hollow promotion in social good campaigns such as these, and companies need to do their research in order to avoid the damaging publicity of viral disasters.

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