I spent the early part of my career working in the nonprofit space, creating cause-marketing campaigns for corporations. The partnerships were structured as a win-win: corporations gave us funding from their marketing budgets to create volunteer campaigns for various worthy causes, and we’d provide positive press about their support.
This structure was a popular form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the process of a business taking responsibility for its impact on the environment, customers and the community. Ten years ago, corporate social responsibility was just a buzzword—now multimillion--dollar companies and household brands have entire departments dedicated to executing CSR initiatives.
For many, however, current CSR initiatives may not be going far enough, especially as the public increasingly believes corporations must act as more than just businesses. A January 2019 report created by PR and marketing consultancy firm Edelman, assessed the general public's trust levels of companies. Based on the responses of more than 33,000 participants around the world, the report found that 76 percent believed CEOs "should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it."
For CEOs and business leaders to lead change within and outside of their companies, they may want to consider evolving their CSR programs into corporate social justice, or CSJ, programs. Corporate social justice means actively managing businesses policies, practices and outputs from a place of equity. Doing so can help correct inequalities and minimize negative environmental impacts before they begin.
The Key Differences Between CSR and CSJ
Generally, CSJ can be thought of as the next evolution of CSR, going beyond feel-good projects by encouraging a commitment to positive, sustainable change within employees, communities, customers, and in the environment:
|Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)||Corporate Social Justice (CSJ)|
|Employees are encouraged to volunteer with causes related to relevant business areas.||Employees||Employees are developed to be leaders, make a living wage and are compensated fairly. They reflect the diversity of the community the business serves and are encouraged to lead and evaluate how their work affects customers, communities and the environment on a regular basis.|
|Communities are given funding from philanthropic projects related to the businesses’ products and expertise. (For example, a food company donating to organizations that provide lunches to low-income students.)||Communities||Communities—both local and global—are central to the way the business thinks about its operations. Representatives talk to community members and get feedback and ideas on how the company's practices can better serve the needs of the community beyond monetary donations. (For example, a company that reduces food waste by hiring local farmers.)|
|The company tells customers about the benefits and values of CSR initiatives as a way to improve brand perception.||Customers||The company provides quality customer service that deeply examines customers' needs and pain points. It shifts business practices to better serve those needs. (For example, a tech company creating a process where customers are compensated for the use and sale of data they opt to share in the platform.)|
|There are incremental and surface changes made to production to reduce environmental impacts (e.g. changing to BPA free plastic, without acknowledging that producing any sort of plastic does long-term damage.)||The Environment||The production process is analyzed across all its many intersections and shifted to focus on equity from the beginning. The impacts on the environment and on the health of the people creating and using the products is evaluated and designed for regularly.|
How to Move Toward Corporate Social Justice
You may be able to move your company toward deeper initiatives that reduce social inequity and negative environmental impacts by taking the following steps.
1. Evaluate the inequalities that exist currently in your practices.
Analyze what inequalities currently exist within your own company, from employee recruitment and development to production. You can do this by asking, “What is the cause and effect of each decision we make across our production and creation processes?”
Create a pros and cons list of what benefits are created with each decision, and what losses or negative impacts are created for employees, customers, communities and the environment.
2. Create a plan of commitment across business areas.
After noting the gaps, re-evaluate any existing CSR programs for their depth. Are they surface-level approaches to a root problem? How can the initiative focus more on eradicating that issue versus being a reactive bandaid?
3. Leverage liberatory design practices.
Finally, consider implementing liberatory design into building your CSJ plan. This is a design process developed by Stanford University's Standard D. School. Liberatory design uses a series of questions and steps to center the most marginalized people at the core of each business decision and initiative in the design process.
The first step in liberatory design is to use self-reflection to evaluate your own identity and values and how they impact your beliefs and behaviors. When reworking business practices and initiatives, this step helps create authentic, user-centered design versus one focused on you.
One way to do this is to create a mind map to help you think through aspects of your identity and how it impacts your beliefs and values.
The next step is to learn about the needs, experiences, emotions and challenges of the individuals for whom you're designing an initiative or business policy.
A great way to facilitate this step of the process is through empathy interviews. Ask open-ended questions that are centered on their thoughts and feelings and not your own.
Corporate social justice means actively managing businesses policies, practices and outputs from a place of equity. Doing so can help correct inequalities and minimize negative environmental impacts before they begin.
Search for patterns or insights from your empathy interviews that reveal the community's deeper needs to create your problem statement. It is especially important in this phase to work alongside members of the community you're designing for.
You can create an empathy map, which is an easy-to-digest visual that captures knowledge about a person’s behaviors and attitudes, synthesizing your research and putting yourself in the shoes of the various stakeholders.
After creating your problem statement, generate as many inclusive solutions to the problem as possible.
One approach to this step is to use brainwriting in a 6-3-5 approach: Each person writes down three ideas within five minutes, swap papers and add three more ideas and repeat for six rounds. This process helps you avoid ideas being shot down or only listened to from certain individuals.
Once you’ve created your list of ideas, develop a tangible minimum viable product (MVP) for feedback to answer specific questions about a concept. The goal here is building your initiative to learn and think; see this as a step to collect information and measure if the impacts are in line with what you’ve set as a goal.
The final step is to get feedback about your MVP/initiative from all stakeholders. Key questions to ask are, “How are we creating the right environment so that it is truly safe to fail? Have we included all the voices and identities necessary into the room to receive feedback?” Use the insights shared to refine the initiative.
Corporate social justice—that is, centering equity and liberatory design thinking into your business practices across employees, customers, community members, and the environment—can have a much bigger impact as corporate social justice. Try it: Your stakeholders will thank you.
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