On CSR, Sustainability and Community: Why Authentic Connection is So Important

By Daphne Stanford

Corporations and small businesses are becoming increasingly concerned with corporate social responsibility, or CSR.  Specifically, they are upping the community outreach aspect of CSR, which is becoming less of a social luxury and more of a responsible necessity that helps people feel more connected to the businesses they choose to patronize.  Beyond functioning as a progressive nicety, shareholders are increasingly concerned with both financial performance and social responsibilities.

Community building, furthermore, is not necessarily an expensive venture.  According to research from Rutgers University, a circular economy — which is restorative and regenerative by design — could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025.  

A circular economy is defined in opposition to a linear economy, based on the ‘take-make-dispose’ concept, which is inherently unsustainable.  A linear economy is unconcerned with community building, whereas a circular economy stresses the inherent connection between all members of a neighborhood or community, from the producers of a product to the consumers to the suppliers farther down the supply chain and all beneficiaries of said product.

It’s been found that balancing sustainability and profitability doesn’t have to impact the bottom line: the first way, according to Marylhurst University, is to look for inexpensive sustainable changes to business practices.  Businesses can also make an investment in sustainability, such as via investing in solar panels, knowing it will save money in the future.  They can take one further step and make tangible additions a community project, inviting neighbors and adjacent business owners to participate in some of the retrofitting and renovations.  Or they might simply have a grand re-opening of their office space, demonstrating their commitment to sustainability and community-building, both, by extending an invitation to all neighborhood residents.  

Of course, physical changes and ‘green’ implementations to physical structures and processes are also important.  For example, choosing to minimize record duplication, instead opting for storage along with document scanning and digitization, helps to put less of a dent in landfills and forests by preserving and protecting what is already there, rather than generate unnecessary paper waste: “Record storage keeps documents out of landfills where they pollute our environment, and instead allows important documents and information to be available for reference time and time again.”

Another example of a sustainable practice is composting and community gardening, something that is easily achievable with the help of a little planning and neighborhood participation.  TriplePundit points out that access to local soil through community-based composting allows people to grow food cheaper than would be possible according to a conventional model, thus making it possible for communities to address food insecurity.  In terms of ways a company can choose to give back to its community, a community garden is surely among the most tangible and straightforward.

Moreover, the private sector could stand to learn quite a bit from some in the public sector.  This is especially true because public administrators help ensure that government rules and policies have the desired effect on the community, and, as with public groups or entities, private companies are often saddled with complicated political hierarchies that can complicate a company’s ability to meet its CSR or financially-related goals.  Since experienced public administrators begin to move out of operations and into management and compliance positions, administrators with several years of experience are often sought out by private companies in search of qualified professionals who can oversee compliance departments.  

Part of the reason that community-mindedness and sustainability are so important is because companies don’t operate within a vacuum.  That is, their actions and decisions spill over into the communities out of which they are based, influencing the physical and psychic landscape of that place and the people within it.  Let’s take an unlikely example: Great Panther Silver Ltd, a mining company, makes a concerted effort to act responsibly, utilizing a “good neighbor policy” in the towns and communities where they operate.  According to Mariana Fregonese, director of Corporate Communications and Sustainability, “We need to get to know each other and build trust in each community where we operate because their needs and realities are different.  Afterwards, we work in a partnership approach to achieve shared goals.”

The Customer Insight Group recommends three features for company reward programs in order to reflect the needs of consumers: personalization, forward-thinking technology, and relationship building.  These types of rewards inspire true customer loyalty, they argue, as well as help to build an active, authentic community.  Furthermore, community engagement, The Guardian argues, is a way to understand and act upon critical workplace, marketplace, and environmental issues: “It is not additional; it is central.  It is not about being nice; it is about addressing business objectives.  And it is definitely not about ‘giving back’; it is about companies being part of, not apart from, society.”  

We are left, therefore, with a new model of corporations and small businesses as being called to engage with their communities in a genuine and substantial way—becoming, in essence, a community member, themselves.  That is the call, then, that companies are faced with: a mandate to do more, do it better, and do it often.  Moreover, they should not act inside a vacuum, silently writing checks to philanthropic organizations in a dark room.  Rather, they should go out into their communities and become the change they wish to see in the world.  To do any less would be morally irresponsible and essentially lazy.

That’s the 21st-century challenge, then: to be socially responsible and human, to boot.  To truly build a community out of flesh and blood is the challenge.  The rewards are not only financial but also spiritually and socially aware of injustice and inequality.  It also, ideally, would help fill the void many of us feel in this simultaneously disconnected and hyper-connected world full of social media and smartphone apps.  Any gesture that might provide an opportunity to increase actual face-time between neighbors and community members would do a lot of good toward building the kind of connections that are most needed in the world, as we know it.  

Image credit: Flickr/See-Ming Lee

Daphne Stanford writes poetry & nonfiction, and she believes in the power of art, education, and community radio to change the world.  Since 2012, she’s been the host of “The Poetry Show!” Sundays at 5 p.m. on Radio Boise.  Follow her on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.

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