Previously in this blog, I’ve talked about the continued importance of corporate social responsibility even in the midst of retail downturns. Indeed, a fair amount of research has shown that consumers like companies that combine charitable donations with purchases; green practices that demonstrate conservation and renewable resource use; and product development that highlights an awareness of the community of users.
In some respects, it doesn’t matter if CSR is done out of selfishness (brand image) or altruism (a clear guiding philosophy embodied in corporate practices), but in other ways companies that appear to engage in corporate social responsibility for purely selfish gain are less enticing. Still, as companies like Proctor and Gamble have shown, it should definitely be highlighted so that consumers know what they’re getting.
A recent study reported in the Washington Post goes one step further and examines whether CSR helps or hurts companies. The Post reports on a study from July 2007, by Goldman Sachs which found that sustainable companies outperformed the market, often by significant margins. The WP tested that argument by creating a ranked list of 498 companies that represented -- according to IW Financial -- a broad view of socially responsible behavior… What they found: “In the worst economic turmoil in decades, when investors had every reason to shed pretensions of political correctness, companies that put time and energy into behaving responsibly seem, thus far anyway, to have performed no worse than those that didn't.”
One interesting point that the Washington Post research reveals is that companies that appear at the bottom of the SR list were companies that are a bit more insulated from consumer demand – and yet they were also trying to engage in CSR, whether as part of their core business model or as a way of maintaining profitability (i.e. energy conservation) during tough times. The ambiguity of what “counts” as CSR makes it a bit hard to put an enormous amount of generalizability on any list, but the point is that more companies are engaged in CSR than not. As the Washington Post puts it,
As one analyst put it, "leadership on corporate responsibility is not like a spigot that can be turned on when things are going well." CSR for long range planning is key.
CSR, whether or not it’s highly visible to the consumer up front, will be increasingly important as the less-savory business practices of the financial industry come to light and as companies are forced to make decisions about how to survive the recession.