A strategic approach to solving the most critical problems around the world starts with a look at sobering numbers. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risks Report highlights that 70% of young people live on less than US$3.10 per day, and 90% of the world’s population breathes polluted air. The World Economic Forum has listed economic inequality as one of the most important global trends of our time.
In view of the scale of these challenges, companies have a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute to solutions. For years, pioneers in corporate social responsibility (CSR) have made substantial movement toward solving the world’s problems by taking an approach that is much more involved than simply writing a check.
Today, the most ambitious corporate efforts to impact society at scale are distinguished by an integrated commercial and social strategy. These companies apply all of their resources — industry expertise, technologies, highly skilled professionals and networks of suppliers and partners — to accelerate and scale impact.
In the process, they’re turning a common belief on its head: That doing good for society and the planet comes at the expense of doing well in business.
Lessons from leaders: Cisco, Unilever, and Royal Philips
IT leader Cisco’s innovative approach to social impact combines ambitious, long-term goals with expertise and rigorous, data-driven decisions. In 2015, the company set an ambitious goal based on the belief that everyone should have the chance to participate in the digital economy: Cisco would leverage its technology and expertise to accelerate global problem solving, positively impacting one billion people by 2025. To date, the company is almost one-third of the way there, having positively impacted more than 232 million people.
To achieve this goal, Cisco supports a breadth of diverse initiatives and nonprofit partners with a depth of strategic focus. A rigorous start-up-like investment framework places the company as one of only a handful of stakeholders to invest in nonprofits at the most critical, and riskier, early stage.
Additionally, established programs like Cisco Tactical Operations have sent highly skilled Internet infrastructure specialists equipped with Cisco technology to work alongside partners such as NetHope to restore connectivity at Syrian refugee camps and at disaster sites such as Hurricane Maria and the Nepal earthquake.
At the heart of it all is the idea that anyone can be a “global problem solver” — someone who can innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur and act as a social change agent. “We are tech optimists and believe that technology can be used mindfully for good,” says Mary de Wysocki, Cisco’s Senior Director of Corporate Affairs. “For us, it’s about scaling inclusive social and economic impact around the world and advancing environmentally sustainable economic growth in a digital world.”
“When you think about technology, it’s supposed to be the great equalizer,” says Tae Yoo, Senior VP, Corporate Affairs & CSR at Cisco. “From the beginning, we’ve placed strong value around inclusion and a focus on the underserved.” The shaping of CSR at Cisco took place in the 90s as the world transitioned from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.
The company wanted to ensure that those in industrial jobs were prepared and qualified for this shift. The company’s largest and longest running CSR program, Cisco Networking Academy, today stretches back 20 years — starting with the donation of networking equipment to a local school. Recognizing quickly that technology alone wasn’t enough to prepare people with the skills to thrive in the digital economy, the company created its global IT skills and career-building program.
To date, Networking Academy has reached 7.8 million students in 180 countries by partnering with high schools, community colleges, and universities to provide access to IT skills and career-building resources. With the goal of fostering an inclusive digital economy, the program has expanded its reach to non-traditional educational channels such as prisons and community centers to try to help reduce recidivism and support job creation. In 2017, 24% of the Networking Academy’s global students were female; in nations such as Oman, Peru, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Tunisia, female participation rates far outpaced those across the IT sector, ranging from 40% to 70%.
Other companies are taking up the call based on their own unique competencies. Seven years ago, consumer giant Unilever introduced its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), a blueprint for growing its business while diminishing its environmental impact and increasing its social impact. Among the consumer product giant’s goals was its commitment to helping more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being by 2020. By the end of 2016, Unilever had reached 538 million people through its programs on hand washing, safe drinking water, sanitation, oral health, and self-esteem.
Similarly, healthcare technology company Royal Philips emphasizes social and ecological impact. The company intends to improve the lives of three billion people by 2025. By 2016, its campaign had reached 2.1 billion people, up from 1.6 billion in 2012. Philips emphasizes products and solutions that directly support the curative (care) or preventive (well-being) side of people’s health and is developing new approaches to healthcare that emphasize prevention rather than just treating the illness.
Better business, by any measure
A 2017 Cone Communications CSR study of U.S. consumers indicated that 87% will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. Conversely, 76% will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.
Corporate leadership also seems to understand the need to not only intertwine business growth with social change but to facilitate true integration into the culture and ethos of the company to be effective. According to a 2016 United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy study of 1000 CEOs in more than 100 countries and 25 industries, some 89% of leaders surveyed said their commitment to sustainability is translating into real impact in their industry, and 80% believe that demonstrating a commitment to societal purpose is a differentiator in their sector. For example, Unilever’s 18 Sustainable Living Brands delivered 60% of the company’s growth in 2016 — and are growing more than 50% faster than the rest of the business.
A full 87% of CEOs surveyed believe that the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an opportunity to rethink approaches to sustainable value creation. Fifty-nine percent of these leaders report their company is able to accurately quantify the business value of their sustainability initiatives — up from 38% in 2013.
While the scope of global challenges can seem stark, numbers like these give a real reason for hope and excitement. With smart strategies like those pursued by today’s leaders in CSR, the interests of everyone from would-be employees to consumers to business leaders can align to make powerful progress on the world’s most important issues.
Produced by (E) BrandConnect, a commercial division of The Economist Group, which operates separately from the staffs of The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Neither (E) BrandConnect nor its affiliates accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any party on this content.
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