If you run a business, chances are you’ve heard the abbreviation CSR thrown around, especially with regard to brand and marketing issues. But what is CSR and how can you make sure you’re checking that box?
What is CSR?
For the uninitiated, Corporate Social Responsibility—or CSR—is the way your business will regulate itself in relation to ethical standards, such as how transparent your business is for stakeholders, whether you uphold the spirit of the law (versus using loopholes and technicalities), environmental impact, and social benefit of business processes. The area is broad and how you choose to implement CSR standards within your company and make these standards public is, for most industries, up to you. Within some industries though (the energy industry being one), demonstrating some elements of CSR is required by law. However, for most companies, it’s a voluntary choice to create ethical policies and publicize your company’s practices.
Why Implement a CSR Strategy?
There are a number of reasons to make CSR a priority. Integrating ethical practices into the internal company culture increases employee retention and helps companies recruit the best employees; CSR tends to limit vulnerability to certain risks, because bases are covered; CSR is a key part of brand differentiation and social marketing for many companies; and supplier relations tend to be more stable. There is a definite link between company social and environmental performance and company financial performance, with the organizations who engage CSR strategies having healthier financials overall. 
Types of CSR to Consider
As you think about developing a CSR strategy for your company, the key areas to consider are:
- Contribution to the Growth and Development of the Local Economy
- Employment and Industrial Relations
- Human Rights
- Environmental Protection
- Natural Resources Governance, including the Kimberley Process
- Trade and Supply Chain Management
- Intellectual Property
- Women’s Economic Empowerment
Companies Doing CSR Right
Transparency is a major issue that comes up frequently, as so many companies have been caught in a bad situation regarding the information they have (or, more often, haven’t) made available to consumers, employees, and shareholders. To learn how one company made their practices more transparent, have a look at the Coca-Cola Unbottled Blog, where the company dishes on their sustainability practices and humanitarian efforts on a regular basis, achieving transparency and great branding in one fell swoop. From tracing their supply chains in Japan to showing how Coke is helping to feed the hungry in Atlanta, the company knows how to do CSR right.
The same can be said for Intel, which has made big public commitments to ethical human rights practices like manufacturing and shipping only “conflict-free” microprocessors, and Nike, which makes its shoes from “environmentally preferred materials” like recycled polyester and has a “Code of Conduct” engaging working conditions and environmental practices for factories that supply Nike products.
What Should I Be Doing Now?
Chances are, you’re not quite at the revenue level of Nike or Intel yet, so don’t feel pressure to launch a full-scale environmental strategy and publicity campaign right away. What you should and can do, however, is start with:
- Compliance with any legal CSR requirements for your industry.
- Consideration of which issues are likely to be of most interest and benefit to your target market—and focusing on those if possible.
- A page of your website dedicated to explaining your company commitments to any of the CSR issues listed, above and beyond what is legally required, with any related awards, honors or milestones. This is a good example.
The next step will be to integrate CSR publicity into your company’s larger PR and marketing plan, making issues you care about a part of the brand and running occasional social media or bigger marketing campaigns linked to that issue. Keep track of this on your website’s CSR page–don’t call it that though; try something like “Supporting Sustainability” or “How We Give Back” and update the page regularly. You can point people to this information if they ask about your company’s ethics.
Do you have a question or something to add about CSR? I’m all ears!
 See Orlitzky, Marc; Frank L. Schmidt; Sara L. Rynes (2003). “Corporate Social and Financial Performance: A Meta-analysis” (PDF). Organization Studies (London: SAGE Publications) 24 (3): 403–441.