How People Learn About – and Judge – Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts

September 26, 2018

Companies are increasingly being expected to be forces of positive societal change: more than three-quarters of adults expect companies to go beyond just making money and also positively impact society. But how do people learn about business efforts to promote environmental or social responsibility? A new study [download page] from G&S Business Communications provides some answers.

The survey of more than 2,650 US adults found that the largest proportion – about half (49%) – rely on the news media for information about business efforts to promote sustainability. Reliance on the news media for CSR information has rebounded from last year (43%), after 3 consecutive years of decreases.

About one-third (34%) of adults rely on word-of-mouth to learn about corporate sustainability efforts. This could be particularly important for teens, who tend to talk about brands and social issues to a greater extent than adults.

A closely linked area, social media and blogs, also proves to be an information source for 1 in 3 adults (33%). Reliance on social media appears to have gradually grown in the past few years, from around 1 in 4 (27%) adults in 2014.

While social media is slowly rising as a vehicle for learning about corporate social responsibility efforts, the opposite is true for advertising. Fewer than 1 in 5 (17%) adults claim to rely on ads for information about business efforts to promote sustainability. While that’s mostly unchanged from last year, it represents less than half the proportion (37%) from 2014.

(It’s worth noting that a different survey sample was used in 2014 than in 2018, which may contribute in some part to the differences outlined above.)

Public Confidence in Corporate Responsibility is Eroding

Companies may have to lean on those methods to get the word out about their corporate sustainability efforts, because people are becoming more skeptical about the extent to which companies are held accountable for their behavior.

Compared to 5 years ago, only a minority (44%) of adults are equally as confident – or more confident – that businesses that do not protect the privacy of consumer data are likely to be held accountable by the government. Likewise, only 44% are equally as or more confident than they were 5 years ago that unethical business leaders are likely to be held accountable for their actions.

Those are interesting results in light of the rise of social media. Research released last year, for example, found that 3 in 4 social media users feel that social has increased accountability for brands by giving consumers power. It may be that confidence in institutions to hold businesses accountable is decreasing, giving rise instead to people feeling that they need to put the pressure on themselves.

People’s confidence in various business institutions certainly seems shaken, though. Only 4 in 10 are confident that airline carriers treat their human and animal passengers with respect, and only around the same share are confident that car manufacturers accurately report carbon emissions. Even fewer – just 1 in 6 (17%) – are confident that pharmaceutical companies sell their products at fair prices.

Compared to 5 years ago, just 41% are equally as or more confident that businesses protect the environment and ensure responsible use of natural resources for future generations.

How Can Reputations Improve?

So which issues matter most to largely skeptical consumers? Almost 6 in 10 believe that conservation of natural resources contributes to a company’s positive reputation for sustainability, the highest level of agreement of any corporate activity.

About half also believe the following contributes to a better corporate reputation for sustainability:

  • Providing goods or services that are certified (53%);
  • Creating local jobs (52%);
  • Supporting environmental or social causes (51%);
  • Supporting the community (47%); and
  • Offering affordable goods or services (47%).

Far fewer feel that having a visible or popular brand (15%) will do the trick , or having a celebrity spokesperson (6%).

Ethical Practices Sway Purchase Decisions

Recent research indicates that Millennials care about how companies treat their employees. But there are a host of other brand factors that matter to people, too.

Fully 81% of respondents to this latest survey say that a company’s strong customer relationships – due to treating customers with respect and dignity – would have an influence on their decision to purchase goods or services from a company. Likewise, a positive reputation earned by management for conducting business ethically would have an influence on the purchase decisions of about 8 in 10 adults.

Finally, upwards of two-thirds of respondents feel that their purchase decisions would be influenced by other factors, including:

  • A company’s positive reputation earned for operating with environmentally or socially responsible practices; and
  • The retention of top-performing employees because the organization provides fair wages.

The full report is available for download here.

About the Data: The results are based on a survey of 2,659 US adults fielded from August 21-23, 2018 by YouGov plc.


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