3p Weekend: Top 10 CSR Trends of 2015

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

By Alison DaSilva and Lisa Manley

As 2015 draws to a close, the growing and urgent rallying cry from people around the world to address critical global issues has reached a fever pitch. From star-studded events like the Global Citizen Festival (headlined by Beyoncé, Coldplay, Stephen Colbert and others to take a stance against poverty), to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who took to the streets just two weeks ago at 2,300 separate climate marches, there’s no denying a heightened level of  awareness, activism and enlightenment around the world’s acute social and environmental issues.

And companies are taking note. Not only are business leaders taking a seat at the table to address these issues, but many of them are leading the way. Consistent with the aspirations of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the conversation in Paris at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP21, companies are convening and collaborating in novel ways to reach a scale and impact we haven’t seen before.

As 2015 comes to a close, Cone Communications has evaluated a year’s-worth of corporate social responsibility (CSR) tracking to share the top 10 trends of 2015.

1. Gearing up for global goals

From the SDGs, the most comprehensive and ambitious set of goals put forth yet, to the new COP21 Paris pact, which President Barack Obama said is “the best chance we have to save the one planet we have,” 2015 was a landmark year of major commitments. And business stepped forward with unprecedented leadership.

In advance of the SDGs’ adoption, SABMiller created Prosper, its own sustainability development strategy, which outlines five shared imperatives that address the company’s most material issues and align with the SDGs. Dow Chemical Co. also launched its own 2025 Sustainability Goals that seek to address each of the 17 SDGs. Meanwhile, in conjunction with COP21, Citibank made a $100 billion environmental finance goal, and Bill Gates led more than 20 other billionaires in supporting clean energy through the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

2. Susty collab

In 2015, companies invited competitors, consumers, academics and even hackers to problem-solve sustainable solutions, embracing the philosophy that sometimes open doors can create more dynamic and lasting solutions.

To that end, Unilever launched a global crowdsourcing community, Unilever Foundry, to accelerate sustainability solutions, while H&M put forth a $1 million prize to anyone who can offer up better ways to recycle. Facebook hosted its second annual Sustainability@Scale gathering, with major partners like Levi’s, Walmart and Salesforce, to develop far-ranging corporate sustainability remedies.

3. Going against the grain

In a world where most businesses are beholden to shareholders and have an eye on short-term returns, it can take a lot to stand up for values over dividends; but the benefits to business and society can be major.

Eileen Fisher led the way this year, putting its own business practices under the microscope and making “No Excuses” toward a goal of 100 percent sustainable practices by 2020. REI put its employees first when it opted out of arguably one of the biggest shopping days of the year, Black Friday, to instead give employees a paid day off. And Unilever, the pioneer of going against the grain in the name of sustainability, proved doing so can pay off – the CPG giant reported its “sustainable living brands” account for half of the company’s growth and grow at twice the rate of the rest of the business.

4. Kick-starting startups

Sometimes it takes the fresh thinking and ingenuity of a startup to solve pressing global issues – and major companies are paying attention.

In 2015, several big companies invested in the “little guy,” including JetBlue’s BlueBud program to give training, insight and a potential vendor contract to socially-minded entrepreneurs in the food and beverage space. In the search of solutions for drought-ridden California, Shock Top partnered with IndieGogo to invest in innovative water-saving inventions. And Patagonia proved the power of its $20 Million & Change venture fund when it awarded $1 million to biochemical company Beyond Surface Technologies to create solutions for toxic chemicals in performance materials.

5. Employee engagement 2.0

With nearly three-quarters of Americans stating they consider CSR when deciding where to work, it’s no wonder companies are thinking differently about how to engage employees, especially millennials, in CSR initiatives.

PwC is attracting values-driven millennial talent by infusing its new purpose statement into how it engages with employees; the initiative was kick-started with a TED-style Summit on Social Purpose event in New York. For its part, Starbucks has extended its college tuition plan to four years and is partnering with U.K. nonprofit Shelter to offer home loans for employees under 25, while Clif Bar shows how employees are central to its CSR efforts by focusing on five bottom lines: business, brand, community, planet and people.

6. Cause cue

Move over ribbon. This year marketers found more personal and identifiable symbols to associate with their causes.

A celebrity-filled PSA from Safe Horizon encouraged advocates to paint one fingernail purple to “Put a Nail” in domestic violence, while Project Semicolon promoted semicolon tattoos or drawings to start a global conversation around mental health. On the grassroots side, artist Molly Gochman poured red sand into sidewalk cracks to raise awareness for people who “fall through the cracks” and into human trafficking.

7. Retail closes the loop

Although product take-back was all the rage in 2014, this year apparel companies worked to truly “close the loop” on pre- and post-consumer waste. H&M partnered with Worn Again and Kering to create a textile-to-textile recycling technology to turn materials from old clothing into new yarns. Speedo also created a leaner, less-wasteful supply chain by incorporating post-manufacturing scraps into cutting-edge performance swimwear.

8. Packaging for change

No stranger to using its brand to advocate for issues, Ben & Jerry’s* launched Save Our Swirled in 2015 to raise awareness in advance of the Paris climate summit in December, paving the way for a number of companies that transformed iconic packaging for a cause.

Coca-Cola tinkered with its globally recognizable red and white cans when it replaced the words “Coca-Cola” with “Labels are for cans, not people” to promote acceptance. Then Doritos donned a rainbow of colors in support of LBGT communities in partnership with the It Gets Better Project.

9. Cause gets shocking

This year we saw organizations employ sobering, eye-popping and, frankly, shocking images and messages to grab the attention of consumers for important causes.

The Salvation Army South Africa jumped on the viral conversation around The Dress to highlight the real black and blues of domestic violence, while Surfrider Foundation showed animals at “gunpoint” to exemplify how “irresponsible consumer consumption can kill animals.” Arrowhead Mills and Arrive Alive reminded college students of the dangers of drunk driving by inserting wrecked toy cars into cereal boxes, and AT&T highlighted what’s really at stake when drivers text behind the wheel by displaying a slow-motion crash in the viral video “Close to Home.”

10. Water, water … where?

What CSR trends roundup would be complete without acknowledging the record-breaking drought in California and the impacts to business, society and the environment. As the drought continues, businesses are creating solutions and adjusting business models to minimize impacts.

Miller Coors has worked to reduce its total water use by 26 percent over the past five years, while Starbucks’ Ethos brand committed to move bottled water production out of California completely in 2015. VMware engaged its employees in water reduction efforts at home using gamification, and sustainability nonprofit Ceres rallied major companies from across industries to urge for more aggressive measures to maximize the efficient use of water resources.

As the demand for solutions to critical issues reaches new heights, many organizations are exploring new perspectives on CSR. Instead of focusing on addressing issues within their own walls, companies are taking a more global stance, setting their sights even higher to create real and lasting change for the world. As we move into 2016, we look forward to seeing even more innovative, bold and impactful approaches to CSR.

Want to know what’s new and trending in CSR and cause marketing all year long? Sign up for Cone Communications’ Prove Your Purpose newsletter and TriplePundit’s Weekly Dispatch newsletter for the latest innovations and insights.

*Cone client

Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan Gross

Alison DaSilva is the Executive Vice President of Cone Communications’ CSR Planning and Insights group, where she is responsible for tracking and identifying trends to keep our clients on the leading edge of CSR. For the last 14 years, Alison has led the development of Cone’s groundbreaking benchmark research, exploring the attitudes and behaviors of American consumers, employees and executives towards corporate involvement with social issues and responsible business practices. With this in her arsenal and the learnings gleaned from years of program development, Alison collaborates with account teams to keep clients at the forefront of this rapidly changing arena.

Lisa Manley is the Executive Vice President of Cone Communications’ CSR Strategy Team. She is a seasoned sustainability professional with nearly 20 years of experience. As a leader of the agency’s CSR Strategy group, her infectious passion for sustainability and social impact energizes the award-winning strategy and communications practice. Additionally, Lisa has extensive client-side experience after serving as Group Director for The Coca-Cola Company’s Sustainability communications team, where she led worldwide corporate communications and stakeholder engagement in areas of water stewardship, climate protection, sustainable packaging, women’s economic empowerment and active healthy living.

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