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Should the Social Responsibility of Business Be Limited or Limitless?

Raz Godelnik
| Monday September 10th, 2012 | 4 Comments

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ve asked our writers (and guests) to respond to the question” What is the Social Responsibility of Business?”  Please comment away or contact us if you’d like to offer an opinion.

Companies keep struggling with the challenge of changing consumer behavior. Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson explained the rationale behind it: “Companies need to offer responsible products and operate sustainably. But importantly, consumers also need to demand, and then choose, green options.” In some cases, it goes beyond convincing consumers to buy greener products – Unilever, for example, is looking for ways to get people to wash their clothes in lower temperatures or use less water when they shower.

On one hand looking into changing consumers’ habits makes sense given that responsible companies want to see greater demand for their sustainable products, not to mention that any attempt to reduce their footprint requires them to take a broader look at their value chain. Consumers’ use of Unilever products, for example, represents 68 percent of the company’s carbon footprint, so Unilever can’t really halve its footprint, as it aims to do by 2020, without changing consumers’ behavior.

On the other hand, isn’t there something wrong with such intervention in people’s lives? Should companies tell us how much time to use to take a shower? Or in other words: Should the responsibility of business be limited or limitless when it comes to consumers?

One approach to this question is presented by McDonald’s. When asked on their UK stakeholder engagement website, “Does McDonald’s take responsibility for the obesity problem?” McDonald’s replied:

“McDonald’s objective is to ensure that its customers are offered a choice of foods with full nutritional information so that individuals can make the decision themselves, or on behalf of their children, on what they eat as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It is not the company’s role to dictate what people should or shouldn’t eat. McDonald’s aim is to be as open and honest about sourcing of food as possible.”

In other words, according to McDonald’s, companies should offer consumers a variety of options (from Big Mac to garden salad), provide them with all the information they need to make informed decisions and stop right there. The rest, a la McDonald’s, is upon the consumers – it’s their life, their health and their money, and if they want to make healthy choices, it is perfectly fine, but if they want cheeseburger and fries, they will be also greeted with a smile.

The other approach, which I guess Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans would probably call nanny-company, is probably best represented today by Unilever. Once Unilever decided its goal is to “grow the business while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing the positive contribution which we make to society,” and with most of its footprint created by consumers’ use of its products, the company understood it needs to find ways to actively reshape customer behavior.

To make it even more complicated for Unilever, it’s not the products that make the main impact, but other elements involved in their use, such as heated water in the case of soaps, showers gels and shampoos. As a result, Unilever has no choice but to get itself inside people’s showers in order to find ways to reduce the amount of heated water consumers use. The company actually did it literally by conducting the first ever UK shower study, monitoring actual shower behavior and finding that the average Briton spends eight minutes in the shower.

Unilever still works on this challenge, looking for innovative ideas on how to reduce shower times, reduce water usage and generate warm water more efficiently. While some might feel a little intimidated about Unilever messing with their shower habits, Unilever wants you to know it has no desire to act like a Big Brother and kick you out of the shower when the company thinks your time is up. All Unilever wants to do, explains CEO Paul Polman, is to inspire consumers to rethink their practices:

“If we are going to halve our environmental impact and help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being – we have to inspire consumers to choose more sustainable products and adopt more sustainable habits when they cook, clean and wash with our products.”

Both approaches give consumers the final word on which products to buy and what lifestyle to pursue. Yet, one wants to minimally intervene in shaping consumers’ decisions while the other wants to play a bigger role in shaping them. Each approach represents a different vision and set of values and only time will tell which one is more effective – will consumers learn by themselves to choose ‘good’ over ‘bad,’ or will they need a little push (or a big one) to make the right decisions, including getting out of the shower in time?

[Image credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQue, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.


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  • Randy Simms

    Excellent questions! I think you’re right – McDonalds has basically zero interest in changing anyone’s behavior. A cynic would say they also take advantage of this fact. Frankly, the more igrnorant and less thoughtful people are, the more money McDonald’s makes.

    I think they’re very much aware of this fact and it’s the essence of the psychology behind their marketing. They know that a certain number of people will be easily swayed into buying cheap, semi-artificial “food” that they sell – especially children, and despite what they say, they have zero problem doing it!

    That said, at least they’re being honest! The trouble for the rest of us is that we have to pick up the bill in terms of health care costs and dealing with the general idiocracy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carmen.johnson.5891 Carmen Johnson

    thanks

  • http://twitter.com/SusPathfinder Dan Vivian

    This is a huge argument for behavioural economics – something that seems to be going out of vogue now. Consumers should be offered responsible choice and encouraged to make “the right” choice. For example McDonald’s can’t take the blame for obesity, but they should offer sensible portions and not “supersize” – which only encourages gluttony and must be one of the key reasons for the growth of obesity. Difficult for them to square this with tehir volume sales objectives but these are crucial to the sustainability debate.

  • Kathy Kuntz

    It’s disingenuous for McDonald’s to say they leave it up to customers. Research shows that all manner of subtle cues influence us. Have you been in a McDonald’s where the big menu photos are of salads vs Big Macs? Nope. Didn’t think so. Companies have aimed to influence our practices for decades, mostly encouraging us to consume more and more. So while it’s striking to see the efforts of Unilever and other (like Patagonia’s Don’t Buy this Jacket), it’s not new.