Corporate Social Responsibility: The Two Extremes

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In 2015, the UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) which clearly outline the world we want. These goals—ranging from achieving zero poverty to enacting climate action—were designed to involve many nations. Fast forward five years later, certain companies in the American corporate world are aligning themselves with these SDG’s by leading efforts of their own. Others are conspicuously avoiding the social and environmental responsibility that these SDG’s call for. The polarization of the corporate world between the two groups is evident and concerning, but the key question remains: what is exacerbating this divide?

Patagonia & Unilever:

In 2015, the year in which the SDG’s were announced, Patagonia and Unilever were named the world’s most sustainable brands by the 2015 Sustainability Leaders Report. Unilever claimed the top spot for the fifth year in a row, and Patagonia ranked second. When the report was published, major news outlets reported and championed Unilever and Patagonia’s efforts. Yet, even before the SDG’s came into existence, Unilever had already launched a campaign of their own.

In 2010, Unilever launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Their plan was ambitious and clear: to halve the environmental impact of their products during the production and usage processes, achieve nutritional goals by “doubling the proportion of their portfolio [of products] that meets the highest nutritional standards” by 2020. Interestingly, their plan of action also incorporated nutritional goals and not just climate action goals.

Similarly, Patagonia had demonstrated a willingness to claim social and environmental responsibility well before the SDG’s were introduced. In 2012, Patagonia was one of the few Californian companies registered as a B-corporation, or a corporation that delivers exceptional social and environmental value. They had also launched the $20 Million and Change initiative, a fund dedicated “to help like-minded, responsible start-up companies bring about positive benefit to the environment.”

Patagonia and Unilever had been leading social and environmental change well before the SDG’s were announced; the attention that the SDG’s have received, both domestically and internationally since 2015, has only propelled them and their endeavors forward.

In September 2019, Patagonia was named the UN Champion of the Earth. With its long history of committing to social and environmental change, it was not a surprise when it was announced that Patagonia had won this coveted honor. Moving forward, Patagonia plans to become carbon neutral and eliminate all of their carbon emissions by 2025. As ambitious as it appears, Patagonia’s track record of climate action excellence is proof that this goal is feasible. Similarly, although Unilever’s promise to cut their environmental footprint in half by 2020 wasn’t achieved, they have altered their plans to do so by 2030.

The UN and their SDGs, in essence, are propelling sustainable and ethical capitalism—and the actions of Patagonia and Unilever demonstrate their adherence to this cause.

Other end of the spectrum:

On the other end of the spectrum, there exist companies that have not taken substantial action, if any at all, even if they have acknowledged the SDG’s. In the United States, some of those companies in the oil industry have defended their ignorance and lack of action through questionable claims. These claims purposely erode public trust in science by questioning the legitimacy and certainty of scientific data. Although that has always been problematic, the current administration’s attitude and policies further exacerbate the existing problem. In the article “The Sustainable Development Goals are Slipping out of Touch” by Eillie Anzilotti, she notes on how the director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network—the organization that assesses each nation’s adherence to the SDG’s annually—claims that “we have a President who is saying we should drill in national parks and offshore, and has pulled us out of international agreements on climate.”

Although the current administration should not be deemed as wholly responsible for this divide in the corporate world between inaction and action, it has perpetuated the existing ignorance of the SDG’s in the American corporate landscape. This greatly endangers the status of the United States as a global leader—especially as the talk about climate change becomes ever more important and pertinent. Furthermore, the oil and gas industry has inexplicable and complex ties to various political campaigns, and the current administration has undoubtedly reaped benefits from its connections to the industry; it has been reported since 2016 that President Trump has invested heavily in the fossil fuel industry.

It is also worth mentioning that the government is not and should not be the sole actor that determines how companies should operate. Consumers, who are influential in many ways, have the power to pave the way to a cleaner and more sustainable future by changing their own consumption decisions. This will make corporate adherence to SDGs not only more prevalent, but also more profitable.

In the past, the urge to do the environmentally conscious thing—whether it is using solar or wind energy—was greatly hindered by high costs or practical infeasibility. Now, as we move towards a future in which alignment with the SDG’s will become increasingly valuable, politics should not be the roadblock that sets us back.

More posts by Hannah Pan.
Corporate Social Responsibility: The Two Extremes
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