Frankly, our understanding of business’s “social responsibility” is wrong.
We need to set our standards higher.
Should companies consider their social impacts alongside profits or above profits? The nuance between one or the other seems marginal, but the effect is tremendous.
After four years of research and over 200 interviews with business leaders on the edges of both social and environmental sustainability, I’ve come to believe that defining these terms (like what is a socially responsible business) is critically important.
In this post, I hope to offer a more inspired definition of what social responsibility in business can and should look like.
I’ll outline briefly why social responsibility is important for companies and what a truly socially responsible company looks like. I’ll share several examples of companies committed to the practices and values I’ll soon share below.
Let’s start with the why.
Why is Social Responsibility Important for Companies?
I won’t go on a diatribe here as to why companies that adopt socially responsible practices are winning the hearts (and most importantly, the wallets) of younger workers, consumers, etc. — I won’t labor on the point that companies perceived as ethical or responsible increase their brand’s market value.
If you’re looking for a business case for social responsibility, look elsewhere. Because here, as members of the “business community” ourselves, we believe it’s critical to change our standards for what’s good and socially responsible business.
Social responsibility is essential for companies because it’s what’s right.
That must be the standard—doing the right things in business and pursuing the most ethical and high-integrity business practices are important not because it’s good business but because it’s good.
We shouldn’t hold the business community to a different standard than everyone else.
The jobs a company creates, and the service a company provides, don’t justify any level of exploitation or degradation, no matter where in the world it’s occurring.
And, to make the “business case” for a company to pursue social responsibility perpetuates a business culture of profits above all else.
We make significant change when we change what we value.
If positive social impact is pursued only to the extent that it positively affects our business interests, then that will always be our upper limit. The extent to which a business will “positively impact” the world around it is saddled to how those impacts affect the bottom line.
That sounds more like marketing than any change in mission.
We have to wonder why Walmart is more interested in charity, or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), than increasing employee wages?
In early 2023, Walmart announced it was increasing its minimum wage for workers to $14 per hour (previously $12 per hour). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published its findings on what a “Living Wage” should be in the United States.
Their findings report a “living wage in the United States is $25.02 per hour, or $104,077.70 per year in 2022, before taxes for a family of four (two working adults, two children).”
What would be the impact if Walmart increased its minimum wage to meet MIT’s recommended living wage? In the U.S., Walmart employs roughly 1.6 million. For reference, high employment levels through 2021 and 2022 allowed many low-wage workers to confidently quit their jobs and find better, higher-paying ones. This trend produced the most significant decrease in the income gap between high-wage and low-wage earners in 40 years.
So why doesn’t Walmart increase wages? The social implications of such a decision would be monumental. Can they not afford it? Walmart’s most recently reported annual profit was $147.568 billion. Why does Walmart invest so much in CSR but not employee wages? I imagine one costs Walmart less and allows them to publicize their “good image” more than the other.
Giving back to the community offers much greater raw material for marketing and branding than just paying people appropriately.
The more we justify a company’s unethical actions (or inaction) based on their economic impact, the more we license companies to be unethical. If we say that Amazon’s jobs are a “life saver” for some people, does that shield Amazon from criticism? Does that justify their brutal, low-pay working conditions?
To believe that, in any regard, is beyond uninspiring. Do we not believe that we, and all members of the global workforce, deserve a better alternative? Should you be grateful if you were starving on the corner and someone rolled down their window to hand you a crap sandwich?
I highly recommend Jessica Bruder’s excellent and jarring book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Bruder immersed herself in a subculture in America of mostly retirement-age people who, for one reason or another, can’t afford retirement and are forced to supplement with seasonal jobs, very often, jobs in an Amazon warehouse. The Amazon seasonal employees report punishing working conditions and sustain acute injuries, all for meager pay and little or no benefits.
So, social responsibility is essential for business because we need a new and evolved narrative around what makes a good business a good business.
Let’s talk more about that point here—to evolve our understanding of what makes for a socially responsible company in the first place before sharing examples that animate all we’ve covered.
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What is a Socially Responsible Company?
A proper understanding of what is a socially responsible company will shed important light on the examples I’ll share below.
But, to get that to that understanding, there are critical nuances to answering this question that we should cover first:
1. A “Socially Responsible Company” should just be what we call a “Good” company.
I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere, but the biggest businesses in the world aren’t the businesses that are always best for the world.
With the world’s challenges today (climate change, inequality, social division, etc.) we must set higher standards for what makes any business good.
And so it follows that profitability, market share, and notoriety of a visionary CEO can no longer alone be the metrics by which we make that assessment.
When we say a business is a good business, we must now think about the impact of that business—are all stakeholders affected by the company (planet and people included!) better off?
The various terms we’re using, sustainable businesses, purpose-driven businesses, or even in some circles, regenerative businesses, really don’t matter. The goal here of pointing out which companies are taking their impact on the environment and roles in their respective communities seriously is really for changing what we see as a “Good” business, period.
2. Social responsibility and environmental responsibility of business are the same.
Another subject I’ve touched on elsewhere, we cannot separate the social responsibility of business and the environmental responsibility of business. These are inextricably linked.
It doesn’t make sense to look at and assess these responsibilities in isolation.
Pollution, for example, might seem strictly environmental. However, the effects of pollution are significant and tragic even for those who have to live around it.
Plastics are made of 1,000s of different chemicals. The omnipresence of plastic means these chemicals have entered our food chain, water, soils, and damn near everything in between. Recent research from Swiss university ETH Zurich found plastics are even more toxic than previously thought!
Researchers discovered chemicals within various plastic products known to cause asthma, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, and many more ailments.
And so, this is why I can’t help but strongly disagree with mentions of Coca-Cola as a “socially responsible company” on other publications’ lists. Aside from the health effects of the core products their business is built upon, Coca-Cola generates nearly 3 million tons of plastic packaging each year, and reporting has found that while they’ve claimed to set targets to reduce this number and the subsequent waste flow, they’ve made no notable progress towards those reduction targets.
Their total plastic packaging output has increased in recent years, up nearly 9% in a single year alone!
That plastic and plastic pollution to follow affects the quality of lives of people in the communities that have to live around it.
So to me, Coca-Cola is not a “socially responsible company.” And whatever internal initiatives they boast to boost gender diversity at the leadership level of their company that doesn’t offset their business’ life-altering effects on external stakeholders, which brings us to a final point.
3. Charity does not equal social responsibility.
Social responsibility in business is about the DNA of a company, not some charitable arm of the business. This is where we are mixing the term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with a non-defined but vastly more important social responsibility.
Let’s take Starbucks, for example. Another company that I cannot agree with other publications designating as “socially responsible.”
You’ll see Starbucks’ social impact programs (Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives) touted on various lists. They give millions away every year through their Starbucks Foundation.
However, Starbucks has also been the subject of egregious labor conditions. A few years ago, reporting from The Guardian shared that Starbucks’ supplying coffee farms employed children as young as eight to pick coffee beans.
Let’s not forget that oppressive child labor has been outlawed in the U.S. for 80 years, thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Starbucks has also made the most recent news as a Federal Labor Judge ruled the company violated workers’ rights “hundreds of times” as store employees attempted a unionization campaign in Buffalo, NY.
Again, a worker’s right to organize is protected by law thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Breaking nearly 100-year-old labor laws isn’t “socially responsible.”
More nuanced, I don’t believe that any of the “good” that Starbucks does offset their “egregious and widespread misconduct,” as Federal Labor Judge Michael Rosas described it.
Starbucks engages in much charity, sure. But that’s irrelevant. Consciousness around their “social impact” is not ingrained into the company’s DNA. As demonstrated, they are comfortable breaking the law to protect their business interests.
Companies are increasingly integrating Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs into their business and aligning themselves with pressing social movements. CSR initiatives look different for different companies, but it typically includes programs around charitable fundraising, workplace conditions, social benefits like health care, volunteerism, and environmentalism.
But, for our purposes here, we are looking at companies that go further than any program, campaign, or short-term initiative—businesses and business people with social responsibility baked into their DNA.
These businesses determine to do the basic things of running a business the right way. They treat employees respectfully and equitably. They ensure that their supply chain is transparent and fair. They take complete responsibility for what impacts their business decisions make on all stakeholders.
So, concisely what is a socially responsible company? Here at Grow Ensemble at least, we define that as the following:
A “socially responsible company” is a company that continuously strives to leave people and the planet better off.
Yes—it took us a lot to get to that definition, but that’s because this definition appears clear and perhaps simple on its face, but in practice becomes highly complex.
For more on this definition, I suggest reading the following: What is Sustainability in Business?
Let’s move on to discussing our examples of socially responsible companies, so that we can add color to everything explained up until this point.
Examples of Socially Responsible Companies
Here is my list of companies explicitly displaying their commitment to social responsibility. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with many of the business people behind these businesses personally, thanks to our podcast.
1. Dean’s Beans
Dean’s Beans produces & sells “specialty coffee as a vehicle for positive change.”
Founder, Dean Cycon, started in coffee through the nonprofit sector, but in 1993, he set out to forge his own direct relationship with coffee growers around the world.
A “standard-bearing” social entrepreneur, Dean sought out to show that the business model in coffee could be profitable while, most importantly, being ethical. Today, Dean’s Beans is a USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Bird-Friendly, Certified B Corporation coffee company.
As Dean so impactfully shared with me during our interview, “I believe that if your business is based on the suffering of others, you have no right to be in business.”
Of course, I couldn’t agree more—and Dean’s business is clearly on the opposite end of that spectrum.
They maintain long-standing relationships with their growers, pay a fair price for coffee beans, and redistribute profits back to the growers themselves. Dean’s also attempts to affect sustainable change in coffee-growing regions through their People-Centered Development Programs.
These are a variety of economic, environmental, and social projects they only take on at the behest of the local coffee-growing communities. If invited, they listen to and talk to local groups to learn what might be holding them back from their self-identified development goals.
I recommend Dean’s book, JavaTrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee for a more in-depth understanding of the complicated globalized coffee industry.
Dean’s Beans designs the project at the direction of the local stakeholders, avoiding bringing in outside organizations/help at all costs if the local community can manage it themselves. They fund the projects with the sales from Dean’s Beans or as Dean states himself, sometimes his home equity loan.
Dean’s Beans sees the greatest chance of making a sustained, positive impact by putting the coffee-growing community members in charge of any development projects and opting to be a resource provider (little else).
Dean’s Beans just celebrated their 30th anniversary—and with that, Dean is retiring, selling the company to his employees as Dean’s Beans becomes a worker-owned co-op.
Dojo4 is a member-owned software development agency that is committed to creating positive change through technology and design. What’s unique about the company’s commitment to ethical business practices is their willingness to be radically transparent and open to help others in the tech or business world to do the same.
I found this quote from Dojo4 Co-Founder and CEO, Corey Kohn, to illustrate what I mean here perfectly, she explained to me, “For me and my colleagues, kindness is the foundation of how we do business. We absolutely must feel like we’re in genuinely respectful, kind relationships with our clients, with our coworkers, even with our competition, in order to feel like we’re doing our best work.”
As a small business, Dojo4 invested time, energy, and resources into “open-sourcing” what they call the Dojo4 playbook—everything they’ve learned to be as ethical and responsible a business as possible.
Anyone can view and use their open-sourced policy documents that have helped them to earn and retain B Corporation Certification since 2015. Likewise, they open source their bylaws, membership agreements, and term sheets in the hopes of helping other small businesses along the way to become worker-owned cooperatives.
Patagonia has long been a pioneer in socially and environmentally responsible business. For decades, wherever the boundary was for business to be done in a different way, Patagonia has found a way to push that boundary.
The company was the first Benefit Corporation in California when legislation passed to allow such a corporate designation.
Patagonia’s Founder, Yvon Chouinard, was the Co-Founder of the 1% for the Planet business network. As part of the network, all member companies commit themselves to donate 1% of top-line revenue to environmental grassroots nonprofit organizations.
Patagonia was also one of the first of it’s kind to offer paid leave and child care for staff onsite, offer freedom and flexibility in their work schedule, and the company is responsible for co-founding the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which is accountable for certifying farms for their implementation of regenerative organic agriculture practices.
There are complications with a company of the size of Patagonia, however.
While exemplary on many accounts of “corporate citizenship,” like far too many businesses, Patagonia has difficulty keeping track of their incredibly complex globalized supply chain. Patagonia has made news for it’s supply chain’s connection to Uyghur forced labor in the Chinese province of Xinjiang as recently as 2022. The company exited the province but I can’t help but wonder if they should’ve been there at all (given they’ve had supply chain issues in the past).
A symbolic leader of the better business movement for sure (which I think is why they are still worth mentioning and learning from), but in practice, has much, much work to do and in my opinion, we must aspire to mimic other business models.
4. TS Designs
TS Designs is a large-volume business-to-business screen printing company. President of TS Designs, Eric Henry, if asked about Patagonia’s above supply chain issues, I imagine he’d say something like the following:
Make the supply chain shorter.
TS Designs, based in Burlington, North Carolina, has built a completely domestic supply chain, which Eric Henry proudly calls a “dirt to shirt” supply chain because, from dirt to shirt, the supply chain is 100% transparent.
When you purchase a TS Designs made t-shirt or buy a shirt from their consumer-facing clothing company, Solid State Clothing, you can scan a QR code on the shirt’s tag and see exactly where your clothing was grown and made.
Eric believes the more transparent any business can be, not just those in fashion, the better outcomes we’ll see. Too often, large companies with vast globalized supply chains excuse environmental and labor abuses because of how difficult it is to keep track of all the activity.
Eric, rightfully so, thinks abuse and exploitation are inexcusable. Likewise, a supply chain’s complexity is inexcusable as the business decides how and where to build it. Eric is a fierce advocate for transparency and sustainability in fashion—and he attributes his connection and proximity to his supply chain to his business’ long-sustained success and exceptional standard-bearing in those categories. From the cotton field to the finishing cut and sew, Eric can tell you precisely who touched your t-shirt.
And so for TS Designs, nothing or, more importantly, no one is hidden along their supply chain.
5. Navajo Power
Navajo Power was founded to ensure that the clean energy economy was equitable. The company exists to create economic opportunities for tribal communities through the advancement of clean, renewable energy projects.
The Founder, Brett Isaac, a member of the Navajo Nation, saw his community devastated by the closure and departure of a coal company. Even when coal plants were operational on tribal territories, community members weren’t benefiting because, as Brett shared with me, there wasn’t any representation:
“I’m a Navajo kid watching these companies being led by white guys from outside of our communities, making big decisions on behalf of Navajo employees and Navajo livelihoods.
I always felt disconnected in terms of why isn’t someone I know in those positions? Why haven’t Navajo ascended to the C suites of these different companies?”
Hoping to secure a different fate and different levels of representation for tribal communities as our country transitions to a zero-carbon economy, Brett committed himself to action. As stated by Navajo Power, they have “the necessary combination of technical expertise, cultural and linguistic aptitude, and access to capital” to deploy successful clean energy projects throughout Indian country that benefit the various tribal communities.
Adre is an equity-centered real estate development firm. The company seeks to “create social and economic benefits for Black, Indigenous, and people of color through the creation of affordable homes, mixed-use developments, and facilities for mission-driven organizations.”
Founder, Anyeley Hallová, sees this firm Adre as an opportunity to showcase how development can be done differently.
As Anyely explained, the real estate development industry is uniquely positioned to address both the climate change crisis and historical discrimination. The construction industry is responsible for 40% of global emissions, and at least in the United States, home ownership (or land ownership) has historically been the road to creating generational wealth for American families (of which BIPOC communities have largely been excluded from).
And so, Anyeley and her team at Adre have committed to being on the leading edge of sustainable development with their involvement in various Mass Timber projects and as well, the edge of inclusive and equitable development as they explicitly target creating economic opportunity for those historically excluded from home and land ownership.
7. Dr. Bronner’s
I’m sure you’re familiar, but Dr. Bronner’s is a family-owned and operated soapmaking company that was founded in 1948 by a third-generation German soapmaker, Emanuel Bronner.
The 60s and 70s brought Dr. Bronner’s to somewhat prominence as the “We are All-One or None!” peace proclamation printed on the bottle labels resonated with the cultural movement of the time.
Today, after passing a few hands, Dr. Bronner’s is led by David and Michael Bronner, brothers, and grandsons of Emanuel.
Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia worked to establish the above-mentioned Regenerative Organic Alliance, and the soapmakers have been on the edge of the organic and fair trade personal care product movement since its inception.
I advise reading Dr. Bronner’s annual “All-One! Report” to understand further the many initiatives they are involved in regarding sustainable and ethical production.
As well, consider picking up Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain by Gero Leson who has been in charge of Dr. Bronner’s sourcing for nearly 20 years.
Dr. Bronner’s also places caps on executive pay to ensure the difference is only five times greater than the lowest-paid employee and offers profit sharing, childcare benefits, and much more to its staff.
8. Tony’s Chocolonely
In my interview with the then Chief Evangelist of Tony’s Chocoloney, Ynzo van Zanten, Ynzo shared that Tony’s was founded by a Dutch Journalist named Teun van de Keuken after he was shocked to learn the extent of how much illegal child labor exists on cocoa farms.
In 2003, Teun attempted to “turn himself in” for consuming chocolate he knew was produced using illegal child labor. The public prosecutor refused to prosecute Teun.
While he had yet to achieve the legal recourse he was hoping for, Teun decided to lead by example. And in 2005, he produced Tony’s 100% Fair Trade, 100% exploitation-free chocolate bars.
Tony’s was a smashing success; they quickly sold out on their first 5,000 bars.
I think what most stands out about Tony’s is their willingness to tackle the problems of their industry head-on and to “learn in public” as they do so.
- It turned out 100% Fair Trade didn’t mean 100% exploitation free. Tony’s launched a research project in Africa to study the cocoa supply chain deeply and determine how to improve Fair Trade Certification.
- In 2010, Tony’s was called out for the child labor that happens in hazelnut production in Turkey—Tony’s switched producers.
- In 2014, Tony’s discovered that Fair Trade prices aren’t enough for cocoa farmers—they introduced a premium that pays farmers 25% more than Fairtrade to ensure they make a living income.
I know all this because Tony’s documents these short-term failures and their responses, and the evolution of their operation very publicly on their website for anyone to see.
They are serious about their mission to make the entirety of the chocolate industry 100% exploitation free. That’s perhaps the reason for their tagline, crazy about chocolate, serious about people.
9. Greyston Bakery
The Greyston Bakery slogan is straightforward: “Eat Brownies, Change Lives.”
The Yonkers, New York-based bakery and social enterprise have gained some notoriety for their “Open Hiring” policy.
This means no background checks, no resumes, and no interviews.
Greyston claims their goal is to “unlock the power of human potential through inclusive employment.”
And this has been a policy in place with Greyston since their founding in 1982.
Best of all, they’ve since created The Greyston Center for Open Hiring, which offers training, implementation support, research, and more to ensure other interested businesses have all they need to implement this more inclusive hiring practice.
This is just the beginning, as Greyston also offers workforce development programs and transitional employment programs, too.
As they say at Greyston, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”
10. Good Good Good
Good Good Good is an independent media organization practicing a form of journalism now called Solutions Journalism. Solutions Journalism is an approach to reporting that, as the Solutions Journalism Network explains, focuses on “how people are trying to solve problems and what we can learn from their successes or failures.”
Solutions Journalism advocates for telling the whole story—yes, acknowledging the genuine challenges we face in the world, but without leaving readers in despair. Solutions Journalism, while still objective and committed to reporting on what’s happening, is committed to sharing what’s happening but not often reported—progress.
This is why Good Good Good says they are providing their readers with “Real good news, not just ‘feel good’ news.”
The goal of Good Good Good and other fledgling media organizations like them is to help their readership find progress, feel more hopeful (vs. hopeless), and as a product of all that, be more inspired and energized to take action when the opportunity presents itself.
By browsing through our set of examples here, you can begin to understand what a better definition might be for what truly socially responsible businesses can and do look like.
Social responsibility efforts are simply about doing the boring things in business right. It’s about being equitable and fair to local and global communities in how supply chains are built and operated.
It’s about company leadership treating their staff like human beings, not as an employee engagement scheme, but because people (labor) cannot be reduced to a line item on a P&L statement.
It’s about heightened consciousness around your environmental impact, pursuing zero waste production, using recycled materials, measuring, and taking drastic action to lessen your carbon footprint.
Corporate responsibility must be social responsibility. It’s not right or sensible to hold companies to a different standard than we would our neighbors.
It’s worth reflecting on whether we believe that we, people, exist to serve businesses or that businesses exist to help us, our communities, and future generations.
It’s not enough for a company to create jobs because we know not all jobs are created equal.
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Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.