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Cracks beneath: Inspecting corporate social responsibility initiatives

Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find a neglected niche in the market that has not yet met a certain demand or addressed compelling public issues. There seems to be a business catering to every little want and need of the global consumer. But at the core of these enterprises is the ability to not only attract customers and earn profit but also to meet customer needs.

But for these businesses to auspiciously reel in their target audience, the average consumer must be convinced of the company’s good intentions. With a quick press of a button, it is now easy for the masses to learn about the companies that they patronize. As such, firms worldwide try to leave a good impression on their customers through corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices. This way, companies capitalize on good intentions, not only as a general obligation but also as a strategy to stand out in the intensely competitive market.

An appeal to virtues

Norby Salonga, a social entrepreneurship professor from the Decision Sciences and Innovation Department and the director of the Lasallian Social Enterprise for Economic Development Center, expresses that people show interest in companies with good CSR practices simply because they want to support establishments with values and practices that are aligned with their own.

“As consumers, we’ve started to realize that these companies have to utilize our limited resources very responsibly,” Salonga says. But sustainability in business does not only concern the environment but also the labor practices, governance, and ethical standards that they are to observe. “It’s not just about following or promoting sustainability; it’s that they’re expected to. That is [the] basic responsibility of these companies,” he says.

Salonga recalls that, for example, when food security became a major issue at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to panic buying, companies started to shift their focus toward delivering their products to consumers safely amid a shortage crisis, and those that rose above the occasion to ensure the ample supply of essential goods did not go unnoticed by the public. “In a normal situation, they (businesses) sell these products with brand promises, but in the case of the pandemic, they produced these products to attend to the urgency of the needs of the people,” he says.

A vain ploy

In 2015, British journalist James Bartholomew coined the term “virtue signaling” in an article for the British magazine The Spectator to describe the increasingly common phenomenon of advertising one’s virtues. “It’s noticeable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage,” he wrote. As companies continuously try to convey their good virtues through CSR, they risk appearing insincere with the advocacies they are promoting, which may drive away potential consumers.

Virtue signaling is most apparent when Pride month rolls around the corner. As support and advocacy for the rights of the marginalized LGBTQ+ community have become a popular standpoint for good virtues, it has become a way for certain enterprises to produce shameless, pandering efforts. Rainbow-colored logos, branding changes, and merchandise come bursting down on June 1, only to seemingly disappear when July comes around.

Similarly, many companies pledged to do better in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, coming out with statements and black squares on Instagram. A year later, many of these companies have yet to fulfill their promises. 

CSR efforts should go beyond profit-centered marketing campaigns and translate into palpable support for comprehensive policies. In the Philippines, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) bill still has a long way to go. At the same time, only a handful of companies implement anti-SOGIE-based discrimination policies and seminars. “The emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the workplace should be reflected in the organization’s support of the LGBT community,” says Angelique Blasa, a CSR professor from the Management and Organization Department.

Staying close to home

In pursuit of a good image, many corporations jump on the CSR train, to which Blasa says it is important to emphasize that words conveying good virtues need to be cemented with genuine concrete actions so that their motives for doing so will not be in question. “An organization’s stand on a social issue should align with its core values and culture. The advocacy should start within the organization,” Blasa posits.

She says that businesses need to observe the different levels of CSR as reflected in a framework known as “Carroll’s pyramid”, which includes economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities. A business must have the means to be responsible before it can become responsible, and before a company can promote the welfare of others with good virtues, it has to attain its legal and ethical responsibilities.

Salonga says a more genuine business strategy is for firms to have CSR programs that cater to their field or industry, such as banking institutions providing financial literacy programs and real estate companies providing affordable housing opportunities. “You’re not just building your business, you’re also building the sector you’re a part of, and you’re most likely ensuring that the people who are directly involved in your business will also benefit,” he says. 

Blasa also adds that these social marketing campaigns are much more risk-averse than topical social marketing campaigns because they show their priorities, such as beverage industries providing clean water sources for communities with limited water access. “These are some ways on how consumers can see that organizations create these products not just for the consumption of those who can afford, but also of those who do not have access,” she says.

Power to the people

Salonga reminds the public of their position to influence how businesses operate through their brand preference. “We have to insist on our rights in ensuring that what we get from these companies are not just the standards but the quality of the standards of those particular sectors,” he explains. After all, many historic movements such as the Chicano labor strike have called for consumers’ support through worker-led boycotts.

With the assessment of consumer needs and the ideals that businesses wish to uphold, consumers can influence enterprises to do better and encourage other consumers to do the same, as there is strength in numbers. To ensure that these companies uphold the standards of their industries, it is up to the public to use their patronage as a bargain. “We have the buying power. So let’s use that to influence these organizations to shape up,” he asserts.

By Matthew Gan

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