Social Purpose and Corporate Social Responsibility

This isn't a new topic, but as the buzzwords start flying around more frequently, I wanted to jump in and give my thoughts on the difference between Social Purpose and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been around the block a few times and has gained a reputation for being a bit of a cop-out or expectation of what a company does in order to gain favour in the public eye. Instead of granting companies the benefit of the doubt that they are honouring their social responsibilities from the affects of their core business, we are quick to state that no matter what they do it won't be good enough because their CSR is not at the core of what their company does.

This constant questioning of CSR has lead to a new kid on the block - Social Purpose. It's the hottest new buzzword and people are demanding every company have or incorporate a social purpose. It's pretty self-explanatory - a company operates and acts with a social conscious above financial profits or traditional business means.

Immediate companies that come to mind who were doing 'social purpose' before having such a purpose was popular are the ever famous TOMS or GROSCHE. These companies were built on their social platform while generating profits at a rapid rate, giving a new lens to consumers and providing the ability to shop while feeling great about yourself and purchase.

However now we are running into the problem where public bodies are yelling at large, established companies who don't have a social purpose and demanding that they shift their ways and start talking from their hearts and not their wallets.

The problem is, this isn't going to happen. Some companies simply don't have a social purpose. This is why they pour resources into social responsibility but don't operate for a social purpose.

Let's take a look at the resource sector for a second. Not many mining, oil or forestry company (perhaps I am wrong about this, if so please let me know) are built on having a social purpose due to the nature of their work. There is no denying it, their work directly impacts environment, culture, economy and community directly. Over the past decades, regulations have been put into place, watchdogs have watched closely, governments have gotten serious about human rights violations, and environmental protocols have been established to ensure that wherever these companies are operating that they are upholding the responsibility they have to produce the least amount of damage (and if possible no damage at all) in all of these areas. This sector really was the birthplace of CSR and has had many ups and downs figure out what this means on the field and globally. It is impossible to think that these companies will have a strong social purpose at their core when their purpose is to produce resources for products we use daily, generate high profits and not f*ck up the areas where they operate.  

Their purpose is not social, but their responsibility is, and that is a big difference.

Now, looking at a company that has a social purpose at it's core can be equally as tricky, but for a different reason. The reason companies with social purpose are scrutinized so heavily is because we do not allow any room for error. I know, I understand, error when it comes to livelihoods or our planet have massive implications, therefore one mistake could lead to a massive consequence. However if we don't allow the ability to test and explore, we can't expect to land at a place that keeps all stakeholders at the heart of decisions and outcomes.

When TOMS first launched they were met with great praise and great fury. People loved the idea that they were helping poor shoeless children around the world while others were outraged at the insinuation that families could not provide shoes for their children, or worse would need to have shoes shipped across the world instead of procuring in country with local companies and staying within the current economic system.  They were accused of not knowing the system, of jumping the gun to solve this massive shoe problem and were generally looked down upon by some development or aid organizations. We didn't allow them to make a mistake. Sure, their shoes fell apart really fast, and in some areas the shoes weren't needed but rather used as a photo op. However, if you look at where TOMS started to where it is today you will see that they have taken majority of the learnings their early days produced and have strengthened and adapted their model to be able to continue to moving forward with their social purpose at heart.

I am all for holding every company to the highest standard of practice and operation. There is no reason to not 'do you part' on a corporate scale at this point. However we need to stop confusing social purpose with corporate social responsibility. We need to stop trying to shove square pegs into round holes and demand all companies shift to operating with a social purpose. We need to continue to work at improving CSR activities and giving props to companies who are trying to do it right.

I would love to know if you agree or disagree. Leave a comment or reach out directly.