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A Year in CSR: The Top 10 Trends of 2014


By Alison DaSilva

2014 was a landmark year for corporate social responsibility (CSR). In the past 365 days we saw more than 2.4 million people willingly douse themselves in ice-cold water, a football stadium-sized clothing recycling effort, ketchup turned into cars and ugly vegetables take the main stage.

Companies took CSR efforts to the next level and consumers responded with enthusiasm and participation. As the year comes to a close, Cone Communications has evaluated a year’s-worth of CSR tracking to share the top 10 trends of 2014. 

1. (Un)selfish selfies

It’s no surprise that 2014 was deemed the Year of the Selfie. Luckily, organizations are helping to make the selfie a little less self-absorbed. The selfie seen across the world, Ellen Degeneres’ star-studded Oscar pic triggered a $3 million donation from Samsung ($1 for each retweet) to St. Jude and the Humane Society of the United States.

When technology giant Microsoft launched the Nokia Lumia 735 phone, it included an online auction dubbed "The Selfie Collection," where fashion bloggers modeled the items donated to benefit the Children’s Helpline International. More grassroots efforts like the “no makeup selfie” and the HIV Shower Selfie Challenge also helped individuals show the world the issues they care about.

2. Waste not, want not

Companies got creative this year in addressing waste and the results were fascinating. Ford and Heinz collaborated to turn ketchup waste into car parts, while Nike, Prada and Dior transformed fish skin -- a byproduct of the fishing industry -- into iridescent fashion items. Meanwhile, French supermarket Intermarché boldly encouraged consumers to buy less than perfect fruits and vegetables through videos and in-store signage featuring the "Grotesque Apple,” the “Ridiculous Potato” and the “Failed Lemon.” And when Southwest Airlines made cabin improvements to improve flight efficiency and sustainability, it found a new home for old leather seat covers by working with artisans in Kenya and Malawi to upcycle them into soccer balls, shoes and totes.

3. Powering up girl power

Google's $50 million investment in its “Made with Code” initiative, which encourages girls to get involved in field of coding and technology, was just one of many efforts focused on redefining gender roles. Toy startup Goldie Blox kicked the year off with a Super Bowl ad highlighting how toys can help girls learn to be engineers and Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign made a splash with nearly 55 million YouTube views, questioning why the phrase “like a girl” is considered an insult.

4. Pay it forward pays off

“Pay It Forward” has become a catch-all phrase for people performing small acts of kindness, even if they are to a total stranger. This year, a few companies took advantage of this trend for their cause-related and employee engagement efforts. JetBlue’s Flying It Forward asked consumers to submit where they would go if they had a free flight to spread good. The best idea then won a free ticket. Once awarded, the plane ticket was then passed on to the next do-gooder.

On Dec. 7, the ticket brought police force veteran James from Long Beach, California to Boston to pay his respects to those affected by the Boston Marathon Bombings. HP helped employees pay it forward by giving each employee $25 to lend to borrowers on Kiva with its Matter to a Million effort. By March of 2014, HP employees had already made more than $2.3 million in loans to help farmers, teachers, doctors and business owners, with some employees donating even more from their own pockets.

5. Calling all collections

Conscious collections are all the rage, helping consumers take the guesswork out of responsible purchases and allowing companies to take innovative approaches to production and partnerships. H&M recently launched the Conscious Denim line, made with more sustainable materials and an improved manufacturing process. Shoe brand Vans produced a new furry friend capsule collection, Vans X ASPCA, which benefits the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

6. Take back gains traction

What started with Marks & Spencer’s pioneering “Shwopping” campaign has now become the latest trend in CSR activations, with brands like H&M, American Eagle and Madewell jumping onboard to “close the loop” through clothing take-back programs. Even online retailers like Overstock.com are getting involved – the brand partnered with Give Back Box to create a seamless way to mail donations to Goodwill. Levi’s went so far as to create a “Field of Jeans” at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium out of 15,500 consumer-donated items of clothing it received in the city during October and November.

7. Employee rights resurgence

Employee rights and supply chain took a major hit with the tragic Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013, which spurred increased transparency and investment in 2014. This year, India became the first country to require a minimum spend on CSR programs and many leadership companies took innovative approaches to employee rights. Ikea implemented MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to calculate salaries based upon geographic areas and Marks & Spencer used mobile technology to directly poll supply chain workers on issues like workplace health and safety, worker retention and productivity.

8. CSR entertains

In 2014 we found even more companies harnessing the power of video and technology to tell complex CSR stories, while simultaneously educating and entertaining. Patagonia joined the ranks of Chipotle and Dove with its viral issues-based video, “What the Pluck,” highlighting the realities of conventional down and its commitment to traceable sources. Bank of America combined both on- and offline engagement for its “World AIDS Day” campaign, launching a dedicated microsite with personal stories and videos, a streamable concert and an in-store integration with Starbucks.

9. Reporting on impact ramps up

As attention to CSR grows, so too does the pressure for companies to show tangible results from their promises. Leading companies are standing out from the pack by demonstrating the impact of both the individual’s participation and the company as a whole. This year, Starbucks released a 20-page document entitled "Six Lessons Learned from Create Jobs for USA," detailing metrics from its 2011 Create Jobs for USA campaign to support economic development in the U.S. In celebration of World Water Day, Levi’s released metrics on the success of its Water<Less jeans collection. So far, the production method has saved 770 million liters of water or 3 billion glasses of drinking water. Nonprofits are working to show the impact of programs as well. Charity: Water, for example, made it clear how personal involvement can make a difference. The organization reported for each birthday donated to the cause, 38 people will get clean water.

10. Digital is #trending

We’d be remiss to have a 2014 trends roundup without including the omnipresent Ice Bucket Challenge. Having raised more than $100 million for ALS, there is no question about the appetite and opportunity for organizations to raise awareness, revenue and advocacy via digital. For its part, Kenneth Cole partnered with digital content and activism site TakePart.com to move beyond simply raising awareness for issues. The fashion brand leveraged TakePart.com’s Take Action Platform, allowing readers to take a number of actions, including “signing petitions, pledging, donating, sending messages of support and measuring the influence of social sharing.”


As CSR continues to be a priority, we are seeing tremendous advancements by companies to make their efforts more approachable and accessible for diverse stakeholders. Companies are being more creative throughout their supply chain, taking the guess work out of responsible shopping and meeting stakeholders where they are – increasingly digital – with the content that inspires action. There is no question; we will see more innovations in 2015. It may surprise us, shock us, but mostly likely it will impress us as companies continue to push the limits of progress and meaningful engagement.

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

Image credit: Amodiovalerio Verde, Flickr

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