The Disconnect Between CSR Efforts and Consumer Perceptions

Last Updated Aug 11, 2009 12:37 PM EDT

In January, Dow Chemical announced it would invest in India by researching how castor oil could be used for bioâ€"based products. The company plans to make money by making sustainable products, all while creating wealth and jobs in India. It sounds like the perfect corporate social responsibility (CSR) effort and fits nicely within the firm's "Human Element" ad campaign.

And it will cost a lot less than fully compensating the victims of the Bhopal gas leak, which many claim is Dow's responsibility after it purchased Union Carbide.
So is Dow a responsible corporate citizen?

Although many have tried, there still is no reliable ranking system that can objectively distinguish between the leaders and the laggards. Furthermore, a recent study by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Landor Associates and Burson-Marsteller found that there was no correlation between how companies were ranked as corporate citizens and whether consumers viewed them as socially responsible.

Landor already knew this. It was the agency that turned British Petroleum into a new-age, green sunburst that represented "Beyond Petroleum." Although environmentalists consider this branding maneuver to be one of the most egregious "greenwashing" cases ever, it successfully changed consumer perceptions in the company's favor, nonetheless.

Therefore, companies that are the most responsible need to do a better job communicating their efforts to their customers. Otherwise, they won't be rewarded financially for their efforts and might stop bothering to be responsible. Or, perhaps we should realize that companies which aren't that responsible can cheat the system by investing in marketing rather than taking significant steps towards sustainability.

Is it time to reevaluate whether CSR itself is sustainable?

  • Stefan Deeran

    Stefan Deeran helps environmental nonprofits and green businesses develop and execute their new media campaigns. He also publishes The Exception magazine, a nonpartisan news platform serving his home state of Maine. You can follow him on Twitter @RStefanDeeran or via Facebook.