Consumer Organization Offers Unique Perspective on How Individuals Define CSR

As corporate social responsibility grows in importance to both consumers and the companies they deal with, it is helpful to take a step back and examine where we are in the issue more closely. What is corporate social responsibility? What does it mean for a business to be a model global citizen? How does the concept resonate with consumers? Is it on the radar screen of most consumers?

The National Consumers League was founded at the end of the 19th century by a group of women who were decades ahead of their time. Concerned about the labor conditions for workers — beginning with workers making muslin undergarments -- these labor rights pioneers formed the National Consumers League. The League has served consumers and workers in the United States and overseas by advocating on their behalf and working to help bring about industry awareness — and hold industry accountable — for its treatment of both workers and consumers.

For more than a century of advocacy since, NCL has been at the forefront of emerging consumer issues. In recent years, the League has become the leading voice among consumer groups in advocating for heightened corporate social responsibility. NCL’s President Emeritus Linda Golodner serves as the Consumer Chair for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Consumer Interest Forum. ANSI oversees the creation, promulgation and use of standards and guidelines that directly effect business. Golodner is also a member of the U.S. delegation to the International Standards Organization's Working Group on Social Responsibility, serving as the U.S. consumer expert in developing a new international standard on social responsibility. As the League’s Executive Director, I serve on the board of Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm with more than a billion dollars in investments.

Recent Surveys on CSR
For the last two years, NCL has partnered with Fleishman-Hillard, the St. Louis-based international public relations firm, to survey American consumers, probing their attitudes on what they care about in determining a company’s commitment to the public interest and why. The results have been surprising.

In recent years, environmental issues and reactions to natural disasters have defined national media attention to the CSR issue. The Fleishman-Hillard/NCL survey, however, reveals that Americans’ priorities are closely aligned with another concern that few expected: corporate treatment of employees and their activities within their own communities.

For two consecutive years, respondents have clearly indicated that, when it comes to defining “corporate social responsibility,” a company’s treatment of its employees and its involvement in the community count more than its environmental record. Also intriguing was the way in which the sentiment crossed political affiliations and party lines. In the more recent version of the survey, when broken down by party affiliation, Independents (42 percent) were more likely than Democrats (33 percent) to say that it is more important for a company to treat employees well. By comparison, Democrats (22 percent) were more likely than Republicans (7 percent) or Independents (13 percent) to say that it is most important for a company to go beyond the law to protect the environment.

The survey also found that American consumers expect reputable corporations to be actively engaged in their local communities. It goes beyond just making charitable contributions. When asked what expectations they have for companies doing business in their cities and towns, three times as many respondents favored non-financial contributions, such as community involvement and volunteerism, over monetary gifts. This means greater local visibility and volunteering in the community may be more effective in raising a company’s CSR profile than writing a check. This survey suggests that Americans want companies doing business in their backyards to act as positive, supportive, and contributing corporate citizens, to and to treat employees fairly,

Consumers Going Online to Check CSR Track Records
The ways that consumers get information about companies has evolved enormously with the Internet. Indeed, consumer activism has increased exponentially with the power of chat rooms, blogs, YouTube, other Internet innovations. Our survey found that a quarter of respondents who use the Internet to learn about a company’s CSR record said they turned to blogs or podcasts set up by customers or non-management employees of companies. This finding represented a 100 percent increase over the previous year’s results. A nasty series of e-mails about corporate misconduct — even perceived misconduct — can hurt the bottom line. At the same time, Internet commentary about a corporation’s positive contributions to the community and fair treatment of employees may bring more business.

The research reflects an exciting coming-of-age for consumers and an opportunity for corporations interested in fostering strong consumer relationships. While activists and consumer watchdog groups remain important opinion leaders, the average consumer has become far more knowledgeable and interested in socially responsible activities of corporations. We believe this is a positive development that will make business more consumer-friendly while having an overall positive effect on society as a whole.

Clearly consumers are watching corporate leadership for signs that companies care about treating their employees well, are concerned about and willing to invest in the communities in which they operate, and demonstrate that running a business is more than simply making a profit. If our recent surveys are correct, consumers will reward the best corporate citizens with their praise as well as their dollars if they like what they see.

Contact: This article was written by Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. It is excerpted from the PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility - Vol 2. To order a copy, please go to: