Consumers don’t blindly buy into companies’ sustainability marketing language
When you think of corporate social responsibility, what springs to mind? LEED-certified facilities producing sustainable goods with minimal waste? Clean and safe factories filled with happy, well-paid workers? Company e-newsletters detailing the minutiae of gold-star-caliber supply chains? Firms cutting big scholarship checks and hosting 5K runs to benefit local charities?
Surveys show that most consumers value corporate responsibility and are willing to pay more for products made by companies committed to high social and environmental standards. But the question of what exactly constitutes companies’ moral obligation has been hazy. Now, a pair of researchers have brought some clarity to the issue. For a first-of-its-kind study of U.S. consumers, Sojin Jung, an assistant professor of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Jung Ha-Brookshire, an associate dean of human environmental sciences at the University of Missouri, examined the ways in which consumers prioritize corporations’ social and environmental responsibilities.
Ha-Brookshire explains, “We wanted to find out which corporate actions consumers consider a perfect duty—something one must always fulfill—versus an imperfect duty, which is a nice thing to do but isn’t necessarily considered necessary.” She describes this approach as the “moral responsibility theory of corporate responsibility.”
To find out where various corporate actions fell on this scale of responsibilities, Ha-Brookshire and Jung organized dozens of corporate endeavors reported by companies that consider themselves “sustainable” into four categories: those that centered around workers’ conditions; those that aimed to improve the natural environment; community development initiatives; and overall transparency. The idea was to figure out which category reigned supreme, according to consumers.
Safe working conditions occupied the top rung of this hierarchy. In close second were actions to preserve air and water quality and other forms of environmental stewardship, followed by investment in a company’s community. Most surprising to Jung and Ha-Brookshire? Transparency ranked last, providing what Ha-Brookshire believes is the study’s most significant takeaway—consumers may not be persuaded by the increasingly white noise that constitutes corporate social responsibility marketing language.
The study concluded that companies must actually be able to deliver in key areas. “These expectations build upon one another, like Maslow’s Hierarchy, with working conditions forming the base,” Ha-Brookshire explains, referring to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and wants. “Even if a company has an exceptional program supporting the local community—say, through a scholarship fund for under-resourced children—if their factory has poor working conditions or gas leaks, consumers wouldn’t deem it responsible.”
“Even if a company has an exceptional program supporting the local community—say, through a scholarship fund for under-resourced children—if their factory has poor working conditions or gas leaks, consumers wouldn’t deem it responsible.”
While the study revealed consensus on values across socioeconomic lines, discrepancies surfaced within age groups. For instance, consumers over 45 years of age were more likely to place high moral responsibility on working conditions. Younger consumers, Ha-Brookshire notes, exhibited less tolerance of any perceived lack of corporate responsibility.
“Millennials, especially, tend to believe that companies can make money after they do everything right,” she says, pointing out the discrepancy between that belief and the fact that most businesses exist to satisfy their shareholders, not to save the world. “So, companies are left having to pick and choose whatever they can do that’s most financially feasible—and they tend to then use that as a marketing tool to form some sort of a schema about their company.”
Consumers form these schemas, or preconceived notions, Ha-Brookshire says, through news reports, through social media, through word-of-mouth reputations, and via the ways in which using a particular company’s products tends to affect their own behavior. “When everything’s going well, no one’s complaining,” she says, “but when there’s an oil spill or a big human rights violation, all the marketing language in the world won’t help.”
As a case in point, look no further than United Airlines. Experts say it could take years for the company to recover from last month’s PR nightmare after a man was filmed being dragged from an overbooked plane. But when a company’s pockets are deep enough, Ha-Brookshire says, almost any scandal can be overcome. She points to Nike, which was tainted by sweatshop labor exposés in the late nineties, and to BP’s catastrophic 2010 oil spill. “People were really upset and pushed both companies to apologize and to change the way they do business,” Ha-Brookshire says. She says that Nike is now one of the most transparent and thoroughly vetted companies in terms of labor issues and that BP “saved itself” by spending more than $14 billion in initial response and cleanup and committing another $500 million to examining the leak’s long-term impacts while also agreeing to pay $18 billion to the U.S. government and five impacted states.
Both, of course, were costly comebacks—reincarnations that the average company couldn’t pull off. This new research out of University of Missouri, Ha-Brookshire says, will provide those companies that have pledged to become more responsible with a framework from which to work. “It shows that you can’t just advertise your sustainability as a cherry on top,” Ha-Brookshire says. “You have to prioritize your resources so as to make sustainability part of your business model.”