Many companies are dedicated to social responsibility—they have social responsibility programs, advertise and market their efforts, form task forces and working groups and reach out to the local and global communities to “do good” in their respective areas. But like those wooden labyrinth ball games, moving the levers to adjust the board and getting the silver ball through the end of the maze, the path to “social responsibility” is not a direct one, and it’s one that is navigated in an environment that is constantly shifting. So how should a company achieve social responsibility in a situation that is buffeted by change—like political upheavals in the United States and abroad; regulatory changes of the like not seen since the New Deal; trade and economic relationships shifting with multinational agreements like NAFTA and Paris environmental agreements being laid bare or laid aside. How can companies cope?
The short answer is, they can’t. That is, if you see “social responsibility” as a destination. It isn’t. Social responsibility is a process—a culture. The goal for a company committed to social responsibility is to meet the needs of its shareholders, employees, vendors, suppliers, and yes, regulators, WHILE being socially responsible, and while promoting core values. The needs may change, but the values should not. If child labor laws in Uganda change (for good or for ill) a U.S. company’s commitment not to take advantage of Ugandan child labor should not change. This may result in a temporary economic disadvantage for the U.S. company—as competitors not committed to ending the ravages of child labor may take advantage of a loosening of such protection laws—but in the long run, it is about demonstrating the value of one’s values. Doing well by doing good is not just good for the soul; at the end of the day, it’s good for the bottom line as well.
The same is true as U.S. laws and regulations shift. Changes in U.S. tax law may encourage the repatriation of foreign-held funds back into the country, but that may present an opportunity to use these funds not only for reinvestment in U.S.-based businesses, but also for a rededication to programs dedicated to social responsibility. “Buy American” and “Build American” programs can be used as an excuse for protectionism, or equally can be used to further needed economic development in blighted urban areas, or underserved rural areas of the country. Change creates challenges and opportunities. Values should remain relatively constant.
As the earth shifts beneath us, we may have to switch tactics and strategies toward achieving social responsibility. We may even need to readdress what it means to be socially responsible. Technology plays a role in this as well. Virtual environments enable companies to reach out to new communities, and even to create communities of interest on social media. The ability to collect personal information from Internet connections, mobile phones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices presents challenges of protecting privacy, and opportunities to serve the needs of underserved communities. 3D printing and drone delivery, for example, allow companies to move “manufacturing” or fabrication closer to the location of the customer or consumer, and tailor production to need, as well as to hire local employees.
Change? Yes. Challenge? Yes. But it is managing change with social responsibility and goals in mind.
We can’t always get the world to change the way we want it to. What we can do is move with it—responsibly, and with clear goals in mind.