Can companies mix business with Corporate Social Responsibility?

Can your business ever be truly socially responsible when its main goal is to make money? We look at this hot trend in employee engagement. 

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that it doesn’t matter how great your brand or product is, a corporate social responsibility programme is a must-have initiative for businesses that want to thrive and achieve longevity.

You can be the best loved brand on the planet, but these days, if you don’t drive change towards sustainability, your time basking in the lime light of business success will be limited.

While corporate social responsibility (CSR) may once have been about paying lip service to good PR, today it is much more than that. To fail to recognise the importance of a strong corporate social responsibility programme is to fail, full stop.

It’s a wide and varied topic, covering everything from safety to environmental issues, working conditions and contribution to economic development. Wherever the light bulb might be for your company, the overall focus is sustainability.

But you already knew this, right? 

Everyone from Costa Coffee to Harrods knows this by now. Yes, even Harrods. They appointed Sarah Brown, former PM Gordon Brown’s wife to take on a CSR role in 2012. When luxury brands are concentrating their efforts on establishing an ethical image, you know it’s serious.

So, can companies whose key concern is to make money, do good as well? 


With 72% of Gen Y & 73% of Gen Z (Nielsen 2015) saying they would pay more for brands with sustainable offerings, it’s clear being good also means good business. When millennials will form 50% of the global workforce by the start of the next decade (PwC), it really is time to get busy.

Sodexo’s ‘2017 Be the Change CSR Survey’ revealed that more than half (55%) of employees are given opportunities to ‘give back’ to the community and wider society by their organisation. That’s largely down to the view that the modern worker cares far more about purpose than perks (Sasha Hanau, The Happiness Index).

As any company will tell you, treading the fine line between corporate social responsibility and making money can be challenging. The ones that make it look easy have a lot to learn from.

Top of the CSR pile have always been companies like Google, Lego, Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s. But the list is increasingly buoyant – everyone is scrambling to get in to CSR boat.

Yet Patagonia have had to lower their profit margins in order to meet their environmental commitments. Materials like organic cotton and non toxic work practises aren’t always the cheapest to provide. But it shows the business is going the extra mile and for these guys, it’s paid off with Patagonia saying that it’s now making more money from making less.

Being environmentally friendly is one way a company can make a difference to daily working practises. By using performance incentives to drive greener office initiatives, the business stands to be more sustainable long-term. But recycling a bit of paper isn’t going to fool anyone if you’re still using non-energy saving lightbulbs for example. It’s just not honest enough.

Brands need to think carefully about the causes they promote and how they can foster integrity and social responsibility from within. Doing good shouldn’t be just about looking good.

Get it right, and it can lead to greater profitability.


Ian Walker, Corporate Citizenship Director at Johnson & Johnson says, “Anyone can make a quick buck, but if you do it ethically, you’ll be able do it for the long term. You can throw money around and it can make a big difference through relief and short-term projects. But these are short-term. Companies do this all the time but it’s not sustainable.”

It’s like the old saying, ‘give a man a fish and he will feed his family for a day. But give him a net and he will feed his family forever.’ The former is charity, the latter is sustainability.

Unfortunately, for a long time, CSR existed as a way of managing the negative impacts created by big business. Whether it was less emissions, less water, less materials, the key was being perceived to be green or offset the impact of doing global business.

As Monarch Airlines found out, while it’s nice, there’s absolutely no point pouring efforts into a company foundation, raising thousands of pounds for charity each year, if your actual business is failing to be sustainable, not reacting quickly enough to new trends in the marketplace with agility and confidence.

It might be a good and rewarding practice, but business is business. CSR is important and has value, but consumers and employers need an all-round winning combination for it to be believable and enhance the brand.

Good CSR doesn’t need its own department necessarily, but it does need company-wide recognition and commitment. It’s less about doing a ‘CSR job’ and more about moving people to embrace change.


Who’s doing it well? Look around any supermarket and you won’t be short for answers. There’s little doubt there’s real value in a good CSR programme for FMCGs. In 2016, Unilever reported that its “Sustainable Living” brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, grew 50% faster than the rest of the business that year. These are the tangible business success stories behind CSR. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, Nestlé is another good example of how CSR can increase shared value. As the parent brand of Nescafé, they redesigned their coffee procurement process, working with small farmers in poor areas to provide practical help allowing them to be more sustainable.

This help included providing advice on farming practices, helping grow secure plant stock, supplying fertilizers and pesticides and directly paying them a premium for better beans. Higher yields and quality increased growers’ incomes, the environmental impact of farms shrank and Nestlé’s reliable supply of good coffee grew significantly. This shows that shared value grows when you invest in a CSR project. 

Of course, FMCG brands have a natural affinity with the communities where their produce is grown. But any company who uses factories or services at home or abroad can empower the communities around them. For example, Twinings Ovaltine have addressed employment discrimination in Thailand where workers were only being hired based on their age, gender, height and size.

The issues for each business will be different, but there will be opportunities to bring about positive behaviour change on a social level.      


Whether it’s investing in people on a global scale or making local contributions to society, CSR has become a bit of an innovation in itself. Most of the larger corporates have one foundation or another, but interestingly, smaller challenger brands are also embracing this trend. They’re putting CSR firmly at the centre of their brand before launch.

It’s no longer an afterthought.

For example, Nutrition brand Huel funded an important medical research exhibition to climb Mount Dhaulagiri. Healthy living brand, Graze founded the School of Farming in Uganda helping young people to grow their own crops. Each of these projects are firmly integrated as part of the brand website and this shows how much they matter to the company.

Ultimately, perception is key to creating business success stories, no matter who you are.

The other big rewards for companies who practice good CSR include:

  • Employee engagement
  • Employee attraction
  • Talent retention
  • Customer loyalty
  • New business
  • Brand enhancement


At a time when finding and keeping new talent of a high standard is becoming increasingly difficult, companies need to look sharp. The millennial attitude to career portfolios also means employers need to take a long-term view to both their CSR policy and recruitment matters alike.

Sodexo’s research into CSR revealed that 24.8% of people strongly agreed that an organisation with a bad track record in terms of social responsibility, would deter them from joining as an employee. In fact, over half of those asked are moved to disassociate from employers with bad reputations.

What’s more, 53% of millennials surveyed in the Millennial Impact Report said they had been inspired at some point to work long-term for a company whose mission was to make a difference in the world. If people feel they’re making a difference to their environment, that breeds greater employee engagement. And that leads to motivational success stories on another scale.

A good corporate social responsibility programme can not only attract and engage people with varied personalities, but it can even lead to better talent retention and the ongoing nurture of a successful company culture. It’s another sign that companies are going to have to work even harder to keep Generation Y sweet. 


By driving employee engagement through socially inspired incentives such as volunteering opportunities or team building events like staff fundraisers, companies can carve out a meaningful contribution beyond making money. But it needs to be authentic and true to your company ethos.

As Sodexo’s Iain Thomson, Director of Incentive and Recognition explains, “Employee engagement isn’t a target that can be handed out today and achieved tomorrow. It comes from the beating heart of the organisation.”

Google is just one company encouraging its employees to be environmentally friendly as part of creating a larger, more intrinsic feel-good factor across the entire organisation.

By offering a walk or cycle to work scheme, businesses can help boost the health of employees whilst ticking the environmentally friendly box. Looks good to us and it’s a simple strategy to take. That can only put a smile on everyone’s face, right?

If you go the extra mile and incentivise staff to be green and work towards making the workplace a healthier, kinder place, so much the better.

Whether that’s a free lunch once a month before pay day, a gift voucher on an employee’s birthday or staff events that inspire and reward people, creating a positive workplace culture is important to bringing your CSR policy to life.

It will certainly help to influence the way employees and consumers view you as a committed and trustworthy brand. It’s the kind of people engagement that truly pays off.    

We’re not saying that’s going to be easy for everyone but even the likes of McDonalds have a CSR strategy in place, and if they can do it, anyone can – no matter what size of business you are. 


There are all sorts of business success stories being built right now around corporate social responsibility programmes. As work increasingly means more to people, employees want it to have value and CSR initiatives deliver this by the bucketful.

Good engagement specialists can help you navigate the world of employee incentives and rewards to bring about behaviour change within your organisation. Start small and you never know where you might end up.

With employee engagement linked with increased levels of productivity, creating a brand with a compelling, aligned purpose needs to be top of your wish list. Put sustainability up front and you’ll stand to see results.

Ultimately, it’s a bandwagon you can’t afford to miss. But the journey will be wholly fulfilling and rewarding – increasing your reputation as a great employer to work for and a brand people can rely on. Hop on, it’ll be a ride you won’t regret. 

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