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What is ‘social responsibility?’

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I ran across a story in January about research conducted by a company called Clutch that indicated consumers are more likely to patronize a company and its brand if the firm’s political policy lines up with their own.

According to Clutch, “most people say a company’s commitment to environmentally-friendly business practices (71%), social responsibility (68%), and giving back to the local community (68%) are among the most important attributes of a company.”

Excuse my baby boomer ignorance, but what is a company’s “corporate responsibility?”

According to an article I read published by a trade association, corporate social responsibility is “a company’s initiatives to assess and take responsibility for its effect on environmental and social well-being, generally beyond legislative or regulatory requirements. One popular way of evaluating CSR efforts is the notion of the triple bottom line, which refers to people, planet and profit.”

I always thought a business’ primary responsibility was to simply produce a quality product at a reasonable price while providing genuine customer service.

Silly me. I have been out of the loop for a few years. When did saving the world become the responsibility of a company looking to sell products, provide services or fix things that break?

I am sure Clutch did an enormous amount of research for their study, but I see some fundamental flaws in the interpretation.

The survey showed that only 44 percent of shoppers say price is the most important attribute of a company. Yet it noted that seven out of 10 people are more worried about whether a company supports the environment or has an acceptable “social responsibility” policy.

Really? That’s the last thing that enters my mind when I enter a store.

I’ll need the advice of business owners. Are seven out of 10 customers truly willing to spend more — substantially more — if a business supports whichever one of 10,000 causes that people seem passionate about today?

I believe business owners could go broke proving their commitment to “social responsibility” by donating to all those causes.

The study also showed that 78 percent of people believe that a corporation has a duty and obligation to give back to the local community. I’m pretty sure that is something almost every single business owner has done from the beginning of time.

But, that’s where “social responsibility” meets reality in today’s politically-charged environment.

For example, Anytown Christian Church is seeking donations to fund a weekend retreat to help couples in troubled marriages. That’s a noble cause because most people realize that intact families are stronger. Adults in happy marriages make better workers, kids do better in school, and everyone wins.

So you would think supporting that cause would be an easy decision for a local business to make. Wrong.

If the company offers $1,000 to support the marriage retreat, and that donation is listed on a “sponsored by” sign, then the company risks backlash for not donating an equal amount of money to help:

  • Single mothers
  • Same-sex marriages
  • Domestic abuse shelters
  • Similar programs planned by different religious groups

All of a sudden, what started out as a feel-good donation to help fix broken marriages turns into a public relations nightmare for the company because people start threatening to boycott the business due to its “insensitive, exclusive support” of that particular Christian church program.

Over the years, I worked for a number of non-profit organizations or served on their boards. When it came time to raise money, the first words uttered by the staff or board members was generally a question regarding the best way to hit up local businesses for donations.

Keep in mind that most people around the table had likely purchased a product from Amazon in the past 30 days. If they live in a small suburban town, they had likely driven past dozens of local shops on their way to the big box We Sell Everything For Cheap store 25 miles away.

That raises some important questions.

Before customers implore companies to embrace their “corporate responsibility,” don’t consumers have a duty to embrace their own role by patronizing companies in their local communities?

Let’s call it consumer responsibility.

Next, before a business steps forward to save the world, does it first need to make sure their own product quality and customer service issues are buttoned down?

It seems to me that regardless of how much money a company donates to whatever cause, the backlash from negative publicity is far greater when product quality or service does not meet customer expectations.

Prove me wrong

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Greg Gerber

A native of Wisconsin who moved to Arizona in 2009, Greg Gerber is a DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three grown daughters. He worked as a journalist for many years before pursuing a career as a faith-based writer, author, coach and speaker. Greg is the author of Pornocide: How Lust is Killing Your Faith, Stealing Your Joy and Destroying Your Life.

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