CSR year in review—the top 10 trends of 2017

by | Dec 21, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

As we look back on the past 365 days, 2017 was anything but business as usual. As companies grapple with global strife, uncertain political times and activist consumers, the landscape has certainly shifted over the past 12 months—and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.

But instead of responding with caution, companies are taking this new reality head on—redefining business’ role in society to tackle some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues.

We’ve seen companies take on topics that have previously been off-limits to brands, creating compelling campaigns standing up for social justice issues, tackling disaster relief in new and effective ways and sparking conversations on sometimes uncomfortable topics.

As the year draws to a close, our firm Cone Communications evaluated a year’s worth of corporate social responsibility trends to bring you the top 10 trends of 2017:

1. Standing up for social injustices

It’s safe to say companies vocally supporting social justice issues was the biggest trend of 2017 with companies of all sizes standing up for oftentimes divisive topics. IBM supported “Dreamers” in the U.S. threatened by the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by first issuing a tweet of support, then following up with a dedicated section of its website sharing stories of its own employees who benefited from the DACA program and provide critical value to IBM through the work they do every day. P&G built off its decade-long My Black is Beautiful campaign with a new ad called “The Talk,” depicting generations of African American mothers warning their children of the harsh realities of racial bias and the prejudices they may inevitably face.

2. Creating value by closing the loop

While closing the loop is nothing new for veteran CSR companies, what is new is how companies are bringing shoppers into the fold with consumer-facing activations. Vodka company 42Below collected used lemons from bars across Australia and New Zealand, transforming waste into soap through a proprietary process, then installed the soap in participating bars free of charge with signage about the initiative. Meanwhile, Timberland* built upon its ongoing work in Haiti to transform plastic bottles collected from the streets of the island country into fabric that is used in shoes, t-shirts and bags through a partnership with Certified B Corporation, Thread.

3. Bold stunts to take a stand

In 2017, we saw many companies raise awareness—and eyebrows—with bold stunts for critical or underrepresented issues. KIND Snacks brought to life just how much sugar American children eat every five minutes by dumping 45,485 pounds of sugar right in the middle of Times Square in New York City. UNICEF also took to the streets of New York driving around 27 empty buses during the U.N. General Assembly to drive awareness for the lack of education in war zones. Burger King shocked fans by taking its iconic King mascot to the barber—shaving his full beard and mustache for Movember.

4. Opening eyes and sparking conversations

In these complex times, it can be difficult to have honest and safe conversations around hot button topics. Heineken created an equal playing field by inviting two strangers with opposing viewpoints to build a bar together. Then, at the end of the video, Heineken reveals their differences but asks if they’d like to have a conversation to learn more over a beer. Meanwhile, Vicks sparked a dialogue on the rights of transgender individuals in India through a powerful ad sharing the story of Gayatri who was adopted by her transgender “mummy,” showing “motherhood has no gender.” Google armed individuals to have their own educated conversations on the crisis in Syria through an interactive website laying out all the facts.

5. Cross-company collaboration

Even the most ambitious company can agree, many of today’s pressing issues are simply too complex to solve alone. Here, we’ve seen traction of companies—and competitors—partnering to advance wholescale change. Danone and Nestle joined forces to form the Natur’ALL Bottle Alliance with research company Origin Materials, with a goal to commercialize a 100 percent bio-based and recyclable PET bottle. P&G and Whirlpool partnered to create a comprehensive disaster relief solution on the ground after a series of earthquakes in Italy, with P&G providing detergent while Whirlpool provided the washing machines, dryers and irons in 10 mobile laundry containers.

6. Activism spurs results

With trending hashtag campaigns and marches on the street, individual activism gained traction like never before in 2017. As a result, many companies found themselves under the microscope, forcing operational changes and greater transparency. Uber was the focus of criticism earlier this year for a number of reasons, including allegations of workplace sexual harassment. As a result, Uber released its first ever Diversity Report, acknowledging its shortfalls and the road ahead. Nike found itself the target of a Georgetown student campaign around unfair labor practices. After months of discussions, Georgetown and Nike negotiated a new licensing agreement, conceding to allow the Worker Rights Consortium to access Nike factories.

7. Industries leading on key issues

Acknowledging the power of strength in numbers, companies in specific industries have begun to band together to accelerate progress on shared issues. The food and beverage industry has aggressively tackled transparency in 2017, with major players like Hershey, Panera and Giant arming consumers with additional information. The outdoor industry has raised the rallying cry to support America’s parks and major players in the advertising world have committed to “banishing stereotypical portrayals of gender” in ads as part of the global Unstereotype Alliance.

8. Cause shifts to broader purpose

Notably absent from the CSR landscape this year was the focus on moment-in-time activations. Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month was once par for the course for many brands; in 2017, it was barely a blip on the cause marketer’s radar. So too with back to school campaigns. Also in short supply were the typical Black Friday blowout announcements from players like Patagonia or REI, with these brands opting to build off of earlier commitments instead.

9. Women’s equality and empowerment goes viral

What started with January’s 2.6 million-person global Woman’s March, only continued to grow in momentum on International Women’s Day and massive support for the #MeToo movement. Brands joined the conversation as well, with Nike fighting gender discrimination for women in sports in the Arab world and REI creating a 360 degree campaign in support of women in the outdoors with “Force of Nature.” For International Women’s Day, United Colors of Benetton tackled gender inequalities in India with the #UnitedbyHalf campaign, reinforcing that no gender is a better or worse half and that “every person deserves their share of what life has to offer.” The clothing brand invited individuals to pledge for half by posting a “#halfie” to their LinkedIn profiles.

10. Companies leverage unique assets for disaster relief

From Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, to widespread forest fire devastation in California, the strength and pace of natural disasters in the U.S. seemed unrelenting. Recognizing the urgent need for support, companies immediately opened their purse strings donating more than $383 million for relief, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Others rightly looked to solutions aligning with their core competencies. As the largest airline in Puerto Rico, JetBlue multifaceted 100x35JetBlue effort which included airlifting supplies to the island while capping one-way airfare at $135 with waived bag fees, plus seats on relief flights for emergency personnel and relief workers. Electric car company Tesla worked with local government officials to restore power to San Juan’s Hospital del Niño in addition to deploying six new battery projects on the islands of Vieques and Culebra as part of an ongoing effort. Meanwhile, car sharing company Turo offered free access to Turo cars for those affected by the North Bay wildfires.

Although the world may seem turbulent, companies can and should embrace this as a moment to take the lead to drive progress on critical social and environmental issues. These trends show business not only has the mandate, but the efficiency, acumen and scale to offer up innovative solutions to pressing problems.

As we enter 2018, we look forward to seeing more companies go all-in on CSR—leading with values while proving the business case for addressing critical issues.

Want to know what’s new and trending in CSR and cause marketing all year long? Sign up for Cone Communications’ Prove Your Purpose newsletter.

*Cone client

Alison DaSilva
As executive vice president and leader of Cone Communications’ award-winning Corporate Social Responsibility practice, Alison DaSilva’s expertise spans strategic planning and goal setting, reporting, social impact, employee engagement, public/private partnerships, stakeholder engagement and sustainability communications. She is also leads Cone’s groundbreaking CSR Research & Insights, tracking and identifying trends to keep clients on the leading edge within the rapidly evolving space.