Corporate Social Responsibility Is Top Of Mind At Expo Panel Discussion

As members of the promotional products industry, we know the growing significance of corporate social responsibility. We’re aware that clients are looking to do business with companies that have a philanthropic partnership or eco-friendly focus, in addition to quality product and first-rate customer service—but is that all that CSR is about? Actually, what is CSR, really? PPAI President and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE, kicked off a panel discussion on Monday morning at The PPAI Expo, More Than Buzz Words, with this very question, and he wasn’t surprised when the three panelists—Danny Rosin, CAS, co-owner of Brand Fuel; Denise Taschereau, co-founder and CEO of Fairware, and Jeremy Lott, president of SanMar—each gave different answers.

When Googling the term out of curiosity, Bellantone was met with upwards of two million results—and it’s the very reason, he said, why CSR is such an important topic of conversation: because everyone has a different interpretation of what it means. Prior to the panel, Rosin, Taschereau and Lott were asked to provide an explanation of what they believed CSR meant. Rosin said, “A business model that helps a company be accountable and responsible to itself, its employees, the environment and the public.” Taschereau said, “Companies that embrace ‘purpose and profit’ consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. Corporate social responsibility is about using business as a force for good, whether it’s how your company addresses big issues like climate change and racial inequity or local issues like how you care for your staff or your local community.”

Taschereau added, “I’m probably just as passionate about what CSR isn’t. In my mind, CSR isn’t simply philanthropy or product/compliance. While those might contribute to an overall approach, if all a company is doing is ensuring they meet regulations and give a portion of their profits away, I’d say they’re a long way from being a good corporate citizen.” Rosin agreed with Taschereau’s sentiment: “When you write a check to nonprofit that you care about,” he says, “I think it’s great, but that’s not CSR.”

According to Nielson, CSR includes efforts such as sustainability, a company foundation, employee volunteer programs, charitable donations and having a solid purpose or mission statement; areas of focus that not only helps businesses, but are attractive to current and prospective clients. According to a study of 474 professionals worldwide conducted by the Harvard Business Review and the EY Beacon Institute, companies with a clear purpose are 50 percent more likely to be successful when entering new markets. And according to another study published in 2016 conducted by BBMG and GlobeScan, 40 percent of consumers want to do business with brands that have a purpose and trust these brands to function in its consumers’ best interests.

Taschereau’s description pointed to an important piece of information: in order to know what CSR is, we also must know what CSR isn’t. For SanMar, Lott said that CSR has become a business model, rather than a way of doing business. He explained that having CSR-related practices and policies that exist separately from the business model is waning, and a company’s business model and CSR must now be integrated to be successful. He said, “By definition, CSR is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable, but for us it is also our organizational vision and rallying cry.”

Discussing product, specifically, Rosin said he’s been noticing “a trend in the spend of products related to purpose.” Lott agreed, saying, “Ten years ago, we had our green products and we had our regular products.” Now, he said, clients are requesting green products far more frequently, closing the divide that once distinguished eco-friendly products from other promotional products. This change is corroborated by the growing significance of CSR, a conversation, Lott says, that began in 2012 and “slowly built into the fabric of what [SanMar] did.” CSR, he says, has shifted companies’ conversations on how to maximize profit to include why and how the business can make a greater positive impact on the world. It’s a change that, Taschereau says, clients are also in-the-know about, “which forces companies to be in the ‘zone,’ too.” According to Nielsen, almost every major company (92 percent) publishes a CSR report annually; up 64 percent from 2005. The report, which looked at 250 of the largest companies worldwide, also said that Fortune Global 500 companies spend upwards of $20 billion per year on CSR-related efforts.

The panel’s closing remarks included suggestions about how PPAI could better communicate information about CSR-related practices to the industry and its members. Taschereau suggested the Association should provide more CSR-focused education sessions, along with a CSR toolkit, and continue to speak openly and transparently about companies’ CSR practices. Rosin suggested the Association could share more client stories about what has worked and what hasn’t, and Lott suggested that a good way for companies to learn about CSR-related issues that are of relevance is to simply ask their team members what’s important to them, and how the company can better help address it.

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