Do Consumers Know What They’re Doing? Recent Study Baffles Corporate Responsibility Experts

CRS awardThe results of a recent corporate responsibility study – the Corporate Citizenship Study (CCS) – have experts befuddled. The CCS asked consumers to rank several corporations’ level of corporate social responsibility, or CSR (a corporation’s transparency in its practice and reporting of environmental, financial, and other policies). The results of the CSS were unexpected: consumers ranked several corporations (including Microsoft and General Mills) over other companies (including Pepsi, Coca Cola, Apple, and McDonald’s) deemed more socially responsible by the CRO 100 (a CSR policing agency that annually ranks corporations in its “Best Corporate Citizens” list).

Being included on the CRO 100 list is a coveted honor; 76 companies who failed to make the 2008 list reportedly contacted CRO to determine how to make the 2009 list. Understandably so; in an era of social, economic, and environmental crises, many corporations are under increasing scrutiny regarding their transparency. It seems inclusion on the list would attract consumers and improve consumer rankings. No wonder experts are perplexed.
There could be a number of explanations for the disparity. Perhaps the CRO 100 list, or the CCS, is incorrect. Perhaps consumers’ definition of “corporate responsibility” is skewed. Or, maybe consumers really do not know what they are consuming. (After all, nearly a quarter of U.S. consumers say they have “no way of knowing” whether a product meets its claims of being green, according to a study by the conscious consumerism-oriented marketing firm BBMG.)
But from a sustainable business standpoint, the numbers suggestion that consumers are uninformed highlights the importance of another form of transparency: making sure buyers are aware that socially responsible sustainable businesses exist, and of the benefits of choosing these companies. After all, if consumers’ perceptions of large, well-known companies are distorted, how much more skewed are their views of smaller, less well-known organizations likely to be?

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

5 responses

  1. so, maybe consumers have it right..
    why should Coca-cola and Pepsi be considered “better” than Microsoft and General Mills which at least offer real products.
    Colas are no nutrient-sugar, energy-using water alternatives. Maybe they have great ad campaigns but what about the products themselves?

  2. Differences seem fairly simple to explain
    1) Surveys like CRO assess these things at a much deeper and wider level than consumers. Consumers think a car company is green if they hype up their few E85, hybrids, high MPGs, etc.
    2) Brands that scored high are those that provide everyday products and services – top of mind in general. What consumer really connects w/ Intel, a top CRO scorer, and would mention them first? The study did focus on only a subset of CRO designees, those most relevant to consumers, for this reason, but still have more esoteric areas like finance.
    3) Consumers are most concerned about, and thus likely assess most critically, prodicts they put in/on their bodies, and those that have a high cost or use a lot of energy. Top scorers are weighted to those areas.
    4) Does CSR include only publicly held co’s? CRO changed its rules to cut out companies below a certain size (like Green Mt, which was high in 08 and gone in 09). Consumers do not apply these artificial filters.4) CRO is one of many CSR/reputation rankings, which diverge widely.
    5) Consumers and CRO are using different sources. Key finding of the study was that brands aren’t communicating to consumer as well as they communicate to experts. CRO pulls data from a many places, well beyond the media , ads and packaging consumers see most. How many consumers read CSR reports, websites, etc? How many companies are driving consumer communications about CSR (ads, on pack, PR, etc)? Failure to do so leads to failure to rate among consumers for CSR.
    Beyond the above points, maybe we should be asking how many companies that consumers rate highly – those w/ the mest communications – are walking that talk/perception?

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