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Social Responsibility and Why It’s Important in Marketing

It seems to me there will always be that one college course that left an impact on you. If you know what I mean, “that class” may have instantly popped in your head just now.

Whatever made that class special - whether it was the professor, the topic, your peers, or a combination of the three - that course influenced you. For me, “that course” was Marketing Sustainability at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As cliche as this may sound, it really did change my perception of brands and played a part in shaping the expectations I set for myself when starting my job hunt.

Patagonia, REI, United By Blue, and Seventh Generation are some of the few companies that I admire. What do these companies all have in common? They all practice corporate social responsibility.

Image of a plant seedling starting to grow

What is corporate social responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility happens when a company holds themselves accountable to a specific set of standards. You’ll often find they refer to these standards as the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line ensures that businesses are as committed to making measurable social and environmental impact as they are to making measurable profit (Harvard).

To put it plainly, the triple bottom line = people, planet, profit.

While there may be three tenets in the triple bottom line, there are actually four pillars that make up corporate social responsibility.

The four pillars of corporate social responsibility are:

  1. Environmental responsibility

  2. Ethical responsibility

  3. Philanthropic responsibility

  4. Economic responsibility

Businesses keen on social responsibility can decide which combination of the four to pursue, and in what priority order. Let's go through each category now.

Environmental responsibility

This is one of the most common forms of corporate social responsibility. It’s achieved when a company operates in an environmentally friendly way that benefits the planet. Companies partake in environmental responsibility by reducing pollution, increasing their reliance on renewable energy, and offsetting the negative impacts (Harvard).

A great example of a company that practices environmental responsibility by offsetting their negative environmental impact is United By Blue, a Philadelphia based sustainable clothing company. As their website states, “For every product purchased, United By Blue removed one pound of trash from oceans and waterways. ” Since 2010, they’ve removed 4,233,018 pounds of trash from oceans and waterways.

Ethical responsibility

This is my favorite of the four pillars. Ethical responsibility is attained when a company operates fairly and to bring equitable treatment to all stakeholders including investors, employees, customers, leadership, and suppliers (Harvard). There are various ways that a company can practice ethical responsibility depending on the industry they are in. For retail businesses, it might mean requiring that product ingredients meet fair trade standards.

Take Starbucks for example; they’ve committed to serving 100% ethically sourced coffee by working with farmers to buy coffee at fair prices and ensuring each step of the process is ethical. They’ve even coined a term C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices) to highlight four key commitments: quality, economic transparency, social responsibility, and environmental leadership. Recognize those words from anywhere else? You might not be surprised that these four key points align very closely with the four pillars of corporate social responsibility.

Philanthropic responsibility

Philanthropic responsibility is realized when a company actively makes the world and society a better place through donations (Harvard). These donations come from a portion of the company’s earnings and are given to organizations and nonprofits that align with the donating company's vision. Some companies take things even further and create their own organization or charitable trust.

Ben & Jerry’s is an exemplary brand that takes Philanthropic responsibility to a whole other level. In fact, they have a web page dedicated to the causes for which they have advocated. You can read about them here. Not only has Ben & Jerry’s donated to a multitude of worthy causes but have created an organization of their own. As the Ben & Jerry’s website states, Ben founded 1% For Peace in 1988, an organization that aims to persuade government officials to divert one percent of the national defense budget (about $3 billion) to fund peace-promoting activities and projects.

Economic responsibility

According to Harvard, economic responsibility is “the practice of a firm backing all of its financial decisions in its commitment to do good in the areas listed above. The end goal is not to simply maximize profits, but positively impact the environment, people, and society.” There are many ways progress within this pillar can be achieved, but the most common method is by reusing or recycling material to cut emission and costs.

An example of economic responsibility is Patagonia. They recycle their own products and use the recycled material to make new products. Not only does this benefit them economically, since they are lowering cost of material, but they are decreasing their production of emissions since the emissions that come from sourcing raw materials is greater than recycling.

What does this mean for marketing?

While more companies make a greater effort to practice good corporate social responsibility, they must be careful to not turn to greenwashing. Greenwashing happens when a company makes misleading or false claims of sustainability, hurting a company's reputation (Hubspot). These deceptive statements are often seen in marketing assets such as packaging, advertising, and other promotional components.

An example of greenwashing arose when a Keurig, a coffee company, led their Canadian customers to believe their single-use coffee pods could be recycled when in fact, they could not. As a result, Keurig was fined $3 million and ordered to change the misleading recycling claims on the packaging (Akepa). You’ll want to be aware of greenwashing examples so you don’t make the same mistake as others.

Now that you know a bit more about corporate social responsibility and have learned from some real life examples, you might be more intrigued to see how it could be applied at your own organization. Of course, tackling all four pillars at once would likely be a daunting task if you don’t have the resources or people put in place to make it happen, but tackling one pillar at a time is better than nothing.

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