When I was a kid, I decided I was going to change the world someday. In elementary school, we started to learn about poverty and things like volunteer work and charitable organizations, and they give off the impression that changing the world is just that simple. So as I grew up, I would try to look for ways to donate or give back to my community or abroad, not fully understanding the organizations to which I was giving my money, but feeling good about giving it. A lot of people feel the same way, and major companies understand that their consumers think like this and can use this to their advantage. Through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), companies are promoting to their consumer base that they can change the world through what they choose to purchase. Its aim is to create socially conscious consumers. They play upon our need to make a positive impact, and shine a positive light on the good they’re doing to encourage us to buy their products. Sometimes the work they do in developing countries is amazing, and we can feel really good about where our money is going. Other times, though, CSR is just a way to keep up appearances.
I’ll be honest: I love TOMS shoes. They’re comfortable and versatile, and I have two pairs. So when I saw a video about the real- life impacts their donations were having on the communities in Africa, I was pretty upset. The million or so shoes they had donated were going to the communities, but many communities already had local shoe stores or shoemakers, and these donations put these local businesses at risk of going out of business. Which would you choose: a free pair of donated shoes or locally made shoes you’ll have to spend money on? Local businesses are the backbone of developing communities; they need to be supported and built up in order for the community to thrive, and the actions of TOMS and similar initiatives threaten the sustainability of these communities and instead make them reliant on the goodwill of developed countries.
So even though TOMS did uphold their promise to make the donations, their failure to properly research the locations meant their actions did more harm than good. CSR has been hailed as a creative way to balance business and development interests, but the problem has become more complex than CSR was designed to handle. So how do we know when CSR is trustworthy? You have to do your research. Our purchases are investments, and our money can make an impact. Consumers have the power to choose to invest in something that will have positive impacts on communities or will privilege developed-country businesses at the expense of local ones. Look for transparency within the organizations. Read year-end reports. Be critical. And most importantly, realize the impact your purchases are making. Consumers have a voice, and each and every sale can make a difference in the way CSR is applied in companies worldwide.