A Year in CSR: The Top 10 Trends of 2016

By Alison DaSilva

As we take stock on the past 365 days, there’s no doubt that 2016 has been a turbulent time for business and society. From the ballooning refugee crisis to unexpected political outcomes from all corners of the globe, the world is a different place than just 12 months ago.

Yet with this instability has come progress and awakening. Many organizations took the opportunity to redefine what “responsibility” looks like – beyond just material issues or products and services – to what a company’s larger role in society could be. We saw moments in time grow into movements, employees roll up their sleeves on sustainability, and technology play a leading role in communicating to consumers.  As the year draws to a close, our firm, Cone Communications, evaluated a years’-worth of corporate social responsibility (CSR) trends to bring you the top 10 trends of 2016:

  1. Companies Lead With Values: As issues reached a boiling point, we saw some companies take a stand on items that likely won’t be found in a CSR report. Rather, these companies – and a handful of outspoken CEOs – used their bargaining power to sway decision makers and put a stake in the ground on important topics.

    For example, just two weeks after announcing expansion plans in North Carolina, PayPal released a statement saying it would halt the plans due to legislation the company felt invalidated protections of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens. Meanwhile, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff has been a vocal proponent of equal pay – even going so far as to corner other CEOs into making similar commitments, and Ben & Jerry’s* founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested with hundreds of other activists as part of the Democracy Awakening’s protest on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

  1. Reporting Gets Entertaining: This year marked a new phase in the life of CSR reports as companies transitioned from the 200-page PDF to heightened focus on storytelling, digital and interactive experiences.

    Heineken took the reins this year by enlisting Dutch rapper and spoken word artist, Kevin “Blaxtar” de Randamie, to deliver its sustainability report as a dynamic two-minute video entitled, “Let’s Be Frank.” The video was accompanied by an online game where users could play through the brewer’s CSR commitments. Patagonia’s report eschewed the text-heavy standard for a high definition image-laden report focusing on action and the outdoors.

  1. Employees Drive Sustainability: While companies have long understood the value employees play through contributing to community efforts, 2016 was the year companies put employees to work in driving positive impact on sustainability issues.

    This was the case for Virgin Atlantic. The airline saved around 21,000 tons of carbon and $44 million just by educating pilots on what behaviors could save fuel and then asking this group to participate in a fuel-saving challenge. Starbucks’ landmark FoodShare program launched in March was the result of employees urging the company to reconsider the pounds of unsold perishable food thrown away every day.

  1. VR Transforms CSR Experiences: Virtual reality (VR) was all the rage this year and savvy marketers realized its amazing application to help consumers become fully immersed in important issues – and ultimately change behavior.

    TOMS allowed consumers to take “A Walk in Their Shoes” by using VR to share the moment a consumer met the beneficiary of his one-for-one purchase. Diageo employed VR to put consumers in the passenger seat alongside a drunk driver in a shockingly real video to emphasize the power of choice while the National Autistic Society showed what it’s like to be a child with autism in a crowded mall to bring empathy for people living with the disorder.

  1. CSR Data Goes Big: As the world becomes increasingly connected, CSR innovators are seeing the vast and exciting opportunity in big data. Now, companies are leveraging massive amounts of data to have an even clearer picture of complex social and environmental issues – and create a more transparent supply chain.

    In addition to Google’s $1 million commitment to help fight Zika virus, the tech goliath is also embedding a team of Google engineers and data scientists to help UNICEF organize the data they collect to make the massive amount of information easier to work with. Chicken of the Sea is harnessing data to bring more transparency to consumers’ dinner plates. The seafood brand launched a digital traceability initiative that allows consumers to enter a code to learn a wealth of information about their can including the region the fish was caught, the method used and even the vessel that caught the fish, with start and end dates of the trip.

  1. Trash Talk Goes Mainstream: Talking about garbage may have once been taboo, but what started with “Inglorious Vegetables” has now gone mainstream, with companies of all industries talking about how to address the growing waste problem.

    As a result of a Change.org campaign, Whole Foods joined the ugly vegetables trend with a partnership with Imperfect Produce. The company test-drove flawed fruits and veggies in Northern California stores this April. At the FIRST* LEGO League Arabia Open, the “TRASH TREK Challenge” was launched, tasking children in grades 4 to 8 to research a waste-related problem, then develop a solution and design, build and program a robot to solve for the issue. Meanwhile, trash became treasure with Timberland’s* new partnership with responsible fabric manufacturer Thread, turning recycled bottles into footwear.

  1. Tech Drives Responsibility: As technology becomes more engrained into our everyday lives, it is making it even easier for consumers to make sure their dollar makes an impact – from where we buy to how we give.

    The newest evolution in technology helping consumers make responsible shopping decisions comes from DoneGood, a Google Chrome or Firefox extension that suggests more sustainable options right within the online browsing experience. We also saw giving become easier thanks to technology, as both YouTube and Apple Pay launched new donation add-ons.

  1. Employee Engagement Evolves From Tactic to Experience: When it comes to how employees want to engage in CSR initiatives at the office – expectations have matured beyond the one day of service or matching donation. Employees want to see, feel and touch engagement experiences and find meaning in activities within and outside the office.

    Sabbaticals were all the rage in 2016. In an effort to attract and retain Millennial talent, Citigroup has created a new immersive service experience – allowing junior bankers to work on a four-week microfinance project in Kenya. In a similar move, boutique investment bank Moelis & Co. is now offering four weeks paid sabbatical for employees to pursue a passion area after five years with the company.

  1. Refugees Get a Helping Hand: As the refugee crisis continues on a global scale, companies are playing a unique role,  helping to provide desperately needed aid and assistance while raising awareness for this complex situation.

    Ikea created an immersive in-store experience by transforming one of its showrooms into a Syrian refugee home – allowing consumers to see what refugees call “home.” The replica also included Ikea’s trademark branded hangtags, but this time with a call to action to donate to the Red Cross. LinkedIn leveraged its unique business model for its initiative, “Welcoming Talent.” The company created a special website to help refugees in Sweden find employment opportunities to match their unique skill sets.

  1. Moments Become Movements: 2016 marked the year of big, bold commitments from brands that took on a life of their own, going from a moment in time to a growing movement.

    REI’s #OptOutside campaign grew beyond the confines of the company this year when it asked government agencies, nonprofits and even other brands to join in by closing their doors on Black Friday and inviting employees and consumers to spend the day outside. The outdoor retailer enlisted more than 275 organizations to participate and garnered over 6 million commitments to #OptOutside. The movement to protect bees gained speed this year with more than three major organizations creating consumer-facing campaigns to raise awareness for colony collapse disorder, including Burt’s Bees as well as General Mills and its bee-fronted brand Honey Nut Cheerios. Two even landed on the same hashtag for their efforts: #BringBacktheBees.

As our world continues to face ever-evolving and complex social and environmental issues, 2017 will be anything but predictable. Companies will need to lead with values, encourage disruptive innovation and look to all stakeholders in and outside of organizations to make progress. There is no question that business will be held to a higher standard in the future as stakeholders expect companies to not only operate responsibly but also act as a leading force for positive change in society.

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 Communications client

Alison DaSilva is the Executive Vice President of Cone Communications’ CSR Research 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 17 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.

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