December 6, 2018 by Timothy Jones

The social change imperative

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you?

My morning coffee comes from a company that sources beans from a small-scale grower in Honduras, where the workers are guaranteed a living wage and the farming practices have a low impact on the environment. The eggs I eat for lunch come from a producer that prides itself on its animal welfare practices, letting chickens act like chickens. In the evening, the beer I choose to drink has been influenced by the involvement of a particular brewery in this year’s Pride event where they released a special edition beer to commemorate the first LGBT demonstration on Parliament Hill in 1971.

In a world where ownership of physical objects is becoming less important, my decisions as a consumer are becoming less dictated by the products and services themselves, and more by how a company fits with my personal beliefs.

And I am clearly not alone in this.

According to a recent Ipsos Reid study, 73% of Canadians consider themselves “socially responsible”. Not only that, they are looking to companies to make that process clearer and simpler for them. That’s where you, as a business person, come into the equation — to ignore this responsibility is no longer an option.

The changes behind business-driven social change

The line between consumer and citizen is more blurred than ever, and purchases are no longer just a symbol of social status — they embody our social values. That’s a radical change from just a generation ago. But how did we get to this point?

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First, digital has changed everything. It has opened up markets, reduced the cost of entry and given a multitude of choices to consumers, which in turn has transformed traditional business and marketing. In the past, you could pitch your offer through mass media in hopes of reaching your audience — mass exposure was the goal, TV was king, and print was everywhere. Audiences would buy into the promise of product benefits and, in many cases, price would be the deciding factor.

Now, with so many options available, consumers can be more demanding, and that includes having a social conscience. In fact, a 2016 Ipsos Reid survey indicated that 84% of Canadians would switch product preferences if a considered brand were associated with a good cause.

Another important factor is access to information. On the one hand, the impact of businesses on the global landscape has become much more visible. On the other, tools like social media and review websites, to name only a couple, have given people the ability to instantly post their opinions on corporate behaviour and policies. This is holding businesses accountable like never before.

But these new demands shoudn’t be seen as obstacles — they are opportunities to find ways to differentiate and bring more value, and to become a catalyst for honest change for the right cause.

Why social change makes good business sense

Having a purpose and contributing to the greater social good is becoming an expectation, a standard operating procedure in a successful modern day organization. This is no longer for the trail blazers and disruptors in a given sector, nor is it a passing trend or something that you can afford to pay lip service to. It is a concrete way to create alignment with your audiences, be that your customers or employees.

On the one hand, consumers may feel more disconnected than ever despite living in an era of connectedness. There is a sense that we lose some of our humanity as we deal more and more with instant, transactional, digital experiences. We are looking for authenticity and purpose, we crave real values that can give more context to our lives and help us become better versions of ourselves. And we are also looking for points of reference to help make choices. With so many options available to us, we want to make choices that count.

On the other, employees want to work for companies that have a clear purpose and have social change built into their DNA. The definition of company culture is evolving, people still want the team building events, the happy hours and cool office spaces but they also want their job to give them a sense of purpose and of doing good. Similar to their consumer habits, they want to associate with companies that are committed to social change. Keep them happy and they will stay, but create a larger purpose and they will be driven. Companies need to work with their employees to identify which causes best exemplify their values and that they want to stand behind.

There are many great examples of companies who have committed to being purpose driven and socially responsible. Starbucks has multiple areas it is focusing on, from its  “Sustainable Coffee Challenge” that has them committed to supplying one million coffee trees to farmers, to plans to hire 10,000 refugees across 75 countries in the next five years and 25,000 veterans by 2025. IKEA’s “Brighter Lives for Refugees” in 2017 saw the construction of a solar farm that was used to power Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. It is the first initiative of its kind and will save $1.5 million, as well as reduce CO₂ emissions by 2,370 tons annually. These initiatives have wide reaching positive impacts for all of us while enabling the companies to make a deeper connection with their audiences, both internally and externally.

Taking action to make a greater difference

The first step in making a change is acknowledging that we can always do better. At Banfield, we have been working at refining our purpose — to articulate the reason we come into work each day. It is not an easy process as it requires a lot of honest internal discussion, debate and cooperation. Distilling it down to something that feels authentic to us and our culture is key, and when we land on the right thing it will be embraced by everyone as it will be something that we already embody.

This is an important process that should be revisited regularly. Some say your purpose should never really change, it should be fundamental to who you are as an orginaziantion, but we believe everything has to evolve and that change is a good thing. We have been evolving our purpose over time and looking at ways to communicate it to the team and infuse it into how we operate and make decisions.

But there is still lots of work to do.

As a team, we are excited to continue the process of figuring out where and how we want to focus our own corporate responsibility and social change efforts. Giving back is something we have always believed in and practiced – but we know we can do more and we are making that commitment of turning talk into greater action.

We look forward to sharing our journey with you.