Companies that embrace social responsibility often reap the benefits

Recently, Nike sparked controversy with its latest ad campaign displaying Colin Kaepernick — the former NFL quarterback who initiated the controversial protest movement of kneeling for the national anthem — with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The advertisement spurred waves of outrage and support across the country as some boycotted Nike, while others pledged to support them by making them their sole provider of sportswear. For example, in a leaked memorandum on September 5, Ben Zahn III — a mayor from Kenner, Louisiana — ordered all school organizations to boycott Nike, stating, “under no circumstances will any Nike product … be purchased for use or delivery at any City of Kenner Recreation Facility.”

Social media was also littered with angry customers burning their Nike products. Conversely, Time Magazine cited statistics from an outside research firm, indicating that Nike’s online sales jumped 31 percent from Sunday through Tuesday over Labor Day Weekend. As a for-profit company, it can be assumed that Nike calculated the addition and loss of sales as a result of supporting Kaepernick in order to maximize profits.

Nike’s recent stance on the Kaepernick controversy raises the question of whether business is the right place for the promotion of social and political issues. Certainly consumers seem to think so — and they’re right. Social responsibility in business appeals to consumer interests, while facilitating economic growth and at times promoting positive social change.

Consumers today demand that businesses maintain strong social responsibility. In a 2017 study on the economic effects of corporate social responsibility (CSR), Cone Communications reported that “87% of consumers said they’d purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about and more than 75% would refuse to purchase a product if they found out a company supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.” These discoveries leave businesses in a bind as they struggle to take social stances in accordance with their customers.

However, these risks prove worthwhile, as CSR typically boosts business performance remarkably. In a study examining the impacts of corporate social responsibility on financial performance, Ernst and Young Global Limited found that even with the additional expenses of CSR, businesses increased profits between 33 and 133 percent. While companies like Nike may face social scrutiny, advocating for a social issue almost always boosts companies’ financial performance in a variety of areas.

For example, following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault-style weapons and raised their minimum gun purchasing age from 18 to 21. Although Dick’s faced considerable skepticism as gun sales comprise a substantial portion of its revenue, it exceeded estimates for its earnings in the next quarter, proving that it could overcome the loss of assault weapons sales. Since August, the company’s stock price has risen over 10 percent, indicating that despite the loss of assault weapon sales, the market still has confidence in its success.

Although CSR can result in increased corporate profit, does a capitalist system permit social stances? Of course. In fact, it encourages them.

“If you look at issues like gay rights, states argued they had a better chance of attracting entrepreneurs and a strong business culture when businesses were more inclusive and socially responsible,” said Ms. Jen Nero, economics teacher and chair of the RE History and Social Sciences Department, a few days after Nike’s ad release. “They can and often are color- and religion-blind, which bolsters the expansion of business climates.”

Ms. Nero observed that with a profound demand for CSR, “businesses that can effectively connect to the customer are going to be more successful businesses. If they play it too safely, they may come across as too boring. … A good product makes you feel something.” In capitalism, businesses must serve the customers’ desires, making CSR perfect for corporations to meet these demands.

Recently, entrepreneurship has seen a significant shift towards socially-aware ventures. One example is the Nobel Prize-winning creator of microlending, Muhammad Yunus. A Bangladeshi entrepreneur, Yunus created a platform called Grameen Bank in which the poor could take out risk-free loans by borrowing small quantities of money from various individuals, allowing them to start a business without going into serious debt. The bank has lent over $25 billion in small loans to over 100 million people, marking important social change for the poor, while still earning substantial profits.

Regardless of one’s social stance, CSR often creates substantial social and economic benefits worldwide. Because a business’s main objective is profit, consumer demand for social responsibility advances capitalism’s function of addressing societal needs.

As Ms. Nero said, this is one of the many benefits of Adam Smith’s invisible hand — the metaphor that posits there is an invisible force that guides businesses and people to serve each other, since the only way to be successful in a capitalist economy is to provide a good or service that others desire.

“The invisible hand is more effective than altruism,” she said. “Smith believed capitalism could produce good public outcomes for a society. … Today’s socially responsible way of conducting business is a continuation of Smith’s thinking on how market systems can produce the best outcomes for society.”