Jon Gingerich
Jon Gingerich

We all know the drill. Consumers today are more attuned to their purchasing habits and how they impact the world, and expect brands to take a stand on social and political issues with clearly-defined values that align with their own.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of the socially-conscious brand, of companies reshaping their reputations through random acts of kindness and tossing their hats in the ring on any number of hot-button social issues in a bid to position themselves as authorities on everything from climate change to racial injustice to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, too many of these efforts are disingenuous, and it’s only a matter of time until consumers grow cynical about this overplayed strategy and begin getting the sneaking suspicion that many of these initiatives are empty advocacy platitudes, consumer marketing efforts disguised as corporate benevolence. The fifteen minutes are just about up.

An unpopular opinion, I’ll admit. But one issue isn’t up for debate: Americans want corporations to be socially aware, and the public’s perception of brands is now greatly determined by companies’ commitment to causes we believe in. A March Hotwire survey found that nine out of 10 consumers consider themselves conscious of how their personal values align with their purchasing habits, and 76 percent said they now make a concerted effort to buy products and services only from companies whose beliefs are in line with their own.

Another similar recent survey discovered that 71 percent of U.S. shoppers think it’s important for businesses to take a stance on social causes, with three-quarters claiming they’re more inclined to buy from companies that support issues they agree with. The same study also found that some social stances now influence consumers’ buying decisions more than price: a company’s environmentally-friendly business record, for example, took greater precedence among more Americans (71 percent) than how much a product costs (44 percent).

Granted, consumers place higher expectations on some industries’ commitment to CSR initiatives than others; according to a recent Clutch survey, 70 percent of respondents said they associate the food sector—namely, restaurants and food retailers—as uniquely poised to tackle issues such as food insecurity in their local communities. Additionally, 70 percent said they expect the tech industry to take the lead in addressing data and privacy issues, and 65 percent want the fashion industry to invest more in the use of ethically-sourced materials. 

Marketers are keenly aware of this, of course, and as a result, Corporate Social Responsibility programs have exploded in popularity in recent years. The Hotwire survey found that more than half of the marketers polled (61 percent) believe their organization should take a more proactive stance on social issues. It’s a nice idea, I suppose, and each of these topics invokes conversations worth having, but there’s just something vaguely opportunistic about the notion of a company whose lone priority is profit stealing the mic every time a controversial issue arises in the national conversation. Does anyone actually believe Gillette exists to cure toxic masculinity, or that it’s Nike’s mission to end police brutality?

If those aforementioned companies’ recent earnings are any indication, some clearly do. And therein lies the problem. Companies that shape public opinion through self-congratulatory acts of advocacy are simply responding to consumer demand. The greater challenge will be convincing Americans in this “woke” age that buying things will never alone suffice as a moral value expression. The socially-conscious shopper conducts a performative display to take a stand on something he knows he’ll never be called on to actually fix; it allows us to engage in these narcissistic moral purity contests where we compete to achieve the prestige of being labeled the most conscientious among our peer group. But hey, it feels good to believe we’re making a difference, right? I wonder how much these “enlightened” consumers actually do in the way of directly helping their communities, be it through volunteering at a shelter, or canvasing for a political candidate, but why do any of that when you can buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and leave with the feeling that you’re Rosa Parks? The undue moral scrutiny we give our purchasing habits feeds a lazy misconception that the private sector can do all the ethical heavy-lifting for us and we don’t have to do anything aside from buy certain products. This isn’t how reality works.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that more consumers are beginning to question the motives of companies who engage in CSR. According to a Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study, 40 percent of Americans said they believe companies that embark on CSR initiatives only do so to bolster their public image. My guess is we can expect that number to surge in the coming years.

For this reason, it isn’t difficult to see how CSR initiatives can result in disaster. Most people know a fake when they see one, and for this reason, CSR carries a lot of attendant risk. Indeed, one recent study found that silence might be most companies’ best policy on social issues, as consumers are less likely to boycott brands that remain mum on political issues they care about than they are to stop supporting brands that take a stance on issues with which they disagree. Perhaps this is one more reason, as the adage goes, that if you aren’t willing to walk the walk, maybe you shouldn’t talk the talk.