So far, the year 2020 has been very challenging. We have been witnessing businesses addressing the health and social impacts of COVID-19, and also responding to calls to speak out against racism, while respecting the environment, supplying products and services to customers, and generating wealth for shareholders.
I have had the good fortune to work with private and public sector organizations who are striving to be sustainable and responsible, and this has been a focus of my research and teaching on this subject at The Chang School of Continuing Education.
In this post, I look at corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the age of COVID-19 as well as the recent corporate commitments to anti-Black racism.
Time for Real Change?
Is the business tide turning? Are firms now recognizing the value of considering not only the financial impacts of their activities, but also the social and environmental aspects in the interest of both sustainability and profitability?
Some would say yes: evidence in support of the triple bottom line as “good for business” is mounting.
Last year, the U.S. Business Roundtable announced a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation signed by 181 CEOs who commited to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.
This shift echoed a 2008 Canadian Supreme Court ruling, requiring businesses to act as responsible corporate citizens in balancing their corporation’s interests with the impact of their operations on their stakeholders.
Planet and People as Stakeholders
In this move towards the triple bottom line, the “planet” has often been central with environmental sustainability. For example, through the Carbon Disclosure Project, more than 8,000 companies worldwide have pledged to address and disclose their Greenhouse Gas emissions.
Today, we also see “people” as a business priority as companies deal with the impacts of a global pandemic and heightened calls for racial equity.
In response to the pandemic, the Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) compiled a list of more than 200 examples of businesses taking action in response to the health and social impacts of COVID-19. These include re-working manufacturing to supply life-saving equipment, donating to charities whose resources are stretched, and providing free products to those in need.
While some COVID-19 business pivots are temporary, like food or equipment donations, others might be more long term and transformational, like changed practices concerning remote working, and innovative methods of ensuring hygiene, like introducing touchless automated production.
Addressing Anti-Black Racism
In the wake of public protests, Canadian businesses have also stepped up to address systemic racism.
Earlier this summer, the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism announced the names of more than 200 organizations whose CEOs have signed the BlackNorth Initiative’s pledge. This document is a public expression of senior leaders across Canada who have committed their organizations to specific actions and targets designed to end anti-Black systemic racism.
Putting Words into Action
Is there an explanation for the accumulating evidence of a shift towards triple bottom line business sustainability? Is there a business case for firms taking into account their environmental and social impacts, or is this just philanthropy and slick marketing?
As Wendy Woods argues in her popular Ted Talk, should businesses move beyond CSR? Are there differences in sustainability responses from one business sector to another? What practical steps can businesses take towards addressing their “triple bottom line”?
If these questions are of interest to you and you would like to further explore – and help strengthen – the linkages between business and society, then I encourage you to enrol in CZMN 200: CSR, Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability, which I am teaching this fall.
Students are introduced to definitional, conceptual, and theoretical aspects of CSR, as well as methods for identifying and prioritizing the sustainability challenges facing firms, and possible solutions to those challenges.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kernaghan Webb is the instructor for CZMN 200 CSR Citizenship and Sustainability, which can be taken as a standalone course as well as being an elective in the Certificate in Sustainability Management and Enterprise Process Excellence. He is also Director of the Ryerson University Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility and a law and business professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.