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The good, the bad, and the greenwashing

Written by Editor

October 31, 2023

By Jane Usher, HOD of postgraduate studies at the Milpark Business School for the MBA and PGDBA programmes.

Simply working for profit is not going to help us build the future we need for ourselves and our children. Purpose-driven leaders have the power to use their businesses to effect positive change in society, but they need to give authentically for it to really count.

It’s not often that social media is in the news for something positive. And it’s also not often used as something that inspires sincere acts of generosity. For this reason, I was delighted when I read the story about a TikTok collective that films and drives mass litter clean-ups across Indonesia. Their influence is great: alongside 3 000 volunteers, the group, known as Pandawara, cleaned up 300 tonnes of waste from a Sumatran beach. It’s a great sign that environmental responsibility is being taken seriously. And it’s also a great sign to businesses that when this kind of volunteer work is sincere, people respond.

That should be obvious. But it’s still commonplace for businesses to co-opt societal issues in order to trick consumers into thinking a business is better than it really is – not because the business actually cares about the issue at hand. We’ll often see this kind of intentionally misleading giving referred to as greenwashing.

Typically, these will be stories about brands that, to put it bluntly, bend the truth about their climate impact and their climate goals through insincere campaigns.

And then, we’re also seeing a rise in sportswashing, particularly in football and golf, where nation-states try to shift global perception away from their problematic actions include buying and sponsoring sports clubs and hosting major sports tournaments.

These campaigns have, fortunately, all received backlash. Customers are people, and people know when something is insincere. So, if you’re a business wanting to give back, make sure that you mean it.

The Future of Sustainability publication promotes sustainable and transparent business practices, aiming to provoke responsible corporate citizenship and sustainable development – from individual to institutional level. Read it here: 

 

We need to talk about giving.

From a business point of view, fulfilling corporate and social responsibility (CSR) goals might seem, at first glance, a one-way street. You might know that these goals are necessary to fulfil, but you still wonder: What’s in it for me?

On the surface, your first answer might be: good optics. But there’s far more to it.

Research has shown that fulfilling CSR goals authentically can sustain and improve a business over the long term. Firstly, customers are nearly five times as likely to buy products or use the services of businesses that make a positive difference. Because a purpose-driven business doesn’t solely reflect profit, it acknowledges and reflects the world that customers live in, where climate change and global conflict affect the decisions one makes every day. 

Secondly, authentic giving attracts talent. By 2025, three-quarters of the world’s workforce will be composed of Millennials. 

And the majority of them would outright refuse to work at a business without a CSR policy, and four out of five want to be a part of a company that helps them give back positively to society. If you’re a business with long-term vision, then get an idea of those coming after the millennials, too:

Members of Gen-Z choose purpose over money, and their contribution to and participation in the global workforce is only going to grow.

Finally, there is the importance of CSR in South Africa, where, since apartheid, there are still marked inequalities in terms of education, infrastructure, economic power, and access to basic services. Giving seriously matters here. That is something we need to impress upon our business leaders, and better yet, if we do it before they open shop,

Educating our way into it

 As a part of their Social Responsibility and Environmental Management (SREM) module, Milpark Business School students are encouraged to build a relationship with an NGO, then research, design, and present a strategy that will help the organisation meet its needs.

Students are encouraged to continue to engage, consult, and volunteer their time after the programme is completed, and sometimes their families even become involved in continued work with the charity.

The students come away having experienced a fundamental shift in their minds, having become aware of the power they have to make a positive impact on the lives of others, and feeling as though this is something they would like to continue to do.

Additionally, the programme sees funds donated to an NGO for which the students have consulted and volunteered. Most recently, a donation was made to the South African Institute of the Deaf at the end of the 2023 programme.

There are a number of additional ways, as Financial Times research indicates, in which business schools around the world educate their students about social and environmental responsibility. Whether it’s in their operations, teaching, projects, or research, the paper found that CSR programmes contributed towards tangible change.

Strathmore University in Kenya runs a comprehensive community outreach programme where students can volunteer on a variety of projects, from mentoring and rehabilitation of street children and prisoners to working on construction sites.

MBA students at Lagos Business School in Nigeria established a project called TWiTs (Teaming with Talents) aimed at empowering student entrepreneurs all over Africa with business acumen and soft skills to build sustainable businesses by offering free business advice, training, mentorship, and access to funding platforms.

Skills gained in CSR programmes are not for leaders alone to learn. Rather, they’re skills we can all learn. At the end, we’ll find that we too have become leaders along the way.

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