Running with the Big Dogs: CSR in Small Business

Big Dog, Little Dog

Often when we talk about corporate social responsibility, we assume people are talking about “the big dogs” – companies like Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and of course Walmart.

And certainly these powerhouses dictate a lot of what gets discussed, watched, and measured, if only because of their sheer scale and impact on the global business community.

But what about companies that don’t fit into the same tiers as these big players? What does sustainability or CSR look like for small and medium-sized businesses?

Recently I attended a talk at Mills College featuring the EVP of Marketing at Clif Bar and Company, Michelle Ferguson.

Before the talk I didn’t necessarily think of Clif Bar as a small company, but in fact it only employs 250 people. What the company might lack in size, however, it makes up for in passion for its consumers and its products. Whether through in-person events, an accessible social media presence, or high-touch consumer service, it’s clear that Clif Bar really does value the people who buy its products (and doesn’t just think of us Luna and Clif Bar eaters as a transaction to be managed).

And, in large part thanks to its founder Gary Erickson, Clif Bar and Company also boasts a very well-rounded, active and engaged sustainability program (for example, choosing to use only all organic and natural ingredients because it’s healthier for us and healthier for the environment).

Overall Clif Bar’s sustainability agenda rolls up into one philosophy called the 5 Aspirations, which include:

  1. Sustaining Our People
  2. Sustaining Our Brands
  3. Sustaining Our Communities
  4. Sustaining Our Planet
  5. Sustaining Our Business

While each Aspiration is important, Michelle said she considers Sustaining Our Business to be the foundation for everything else because, at the end of the day, Clif Bar and Company is a business. In order to support the other four Aspirations, Clif Bar’s business needs to be profitable; and, as the business grows, so do the other Aspirations.

This may not be a surprising statement, especially given the fact that most big companies will say the same thing. Still, when you’re talking about a small or mid-sized business – when there’s generally just less money and fewer resources to go around – ensuring a solid financial foundation really must come first.

The Bead ShopNowhere is this idea more evident than in my mom’s business, The Bead Shop. My mom Janice has been a small business owner for over 30 years, and recently her company has gone through some growing pains as the economy weakened and her customers changed their buying habits. In fact, in 2008 she closed her brick and mortar store and chose to focus exclusively on online sales through www.beadshop.com.

With only three employees (including my mom), you might initially guess that The Bead Shop isn’t doing much in the way of CSR. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Much like Gary at Clif Bar, my mom is a business owner who believes in giving back – and so she’s made charitable giving and environmental sustainability two very big business priorities, even with the economy the way it is.

In fact, this year she committed to giving 5% of all sales (not profits, but sales) to two very important charities doing great work in the arts and for women (the way she sees it, if Target can give 5%, why can’t she?!). She’s also starting to explore more sustainable options for packaging and mailing out customer orders, including using biodegradable popcorn packaging and stringing bead orders on string instead of tossing them into plastic bags.

That said, as her business grows and changes over time, sometimes it’s a challenge for my mom to find the balance between making money and giving it away! She wants to be committed to supporting various nonprofits and investing in more sustainable packaging, for instance, but knows that those kinds of actions can’t come at the expense of her business. Ultimately, The Bead Shop’s financial health, its financial sustainability, must come first.

In general Clif Bar and The Bead Shop are two very different companies, with very different products and customer bases. Still, as two businesses committed to bettering their communities and the world, perhaps in some ways they’re actually quite similar.

Using their stories as a guide, I’ve developed the following conclusions about small and medium-sized companies and CSR programs:

  1. Environmental (or social) sustainability can’t happen if financial sustainability isn’t there. As I said before, you may think this is a no brainer, but sometimes I think the CSR advocates out there (even including me at times) forget that CSR is a business strategy that requires money and other resources to thrive. And nowhere is this more true than in a small to medium-sized company where each sale can determine how much you can return to and invest in the community.
  2. CEO/Founder buy-in for sustainability – plus staying private – makes a huge difference. Unlike publicly-traded companies that have shareholders to consider, private companies like Clif Bar and The Bead Shop are led by committed sustainability champions who have the freedom and authority to make ethical, values-driven behavior a priority in their businesses, no matter how tough the economy or how small the budget.
  3. Often small and medium-sized businesses have no model to follow. Unlike big brands who have competitors to mimic and consultants to pay, smaller businesses have to figure out their CSR programs on their own (or in my mom’s case, with my help!). Deciding what causes align with your business model and how much to commit to which organization, not to mention learning how to evaluate your carbon footprint, can be a daunting task for a small business owner with a million things on her plate.
  4. Transparency and communication with consumers is king. Sure, transparency is the buzzword of the year. But when your business is small and each sale makes a huge difference, explaining your goals and mission clearly and authentically can be a tremendous differentiator for your company and help you build long-lasting relationships with your customers. In my opinion, the smaller you are, the more your consumer relationships (and by extension, your CSR communications) matter.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced of the important role small and medium-sized businesses can play in shaping the CSR conversation on both a local and national level. While they might not be as flashy or loud as the campaigns being run by larger brands, these smaller businesses are making a difference and impacting local economies and communities.

I encourage you to think through what small and medium-sized businesses in your neighborhood are running their own CSR campaigns – what do you think of them? What unique challenges or opportunities are they facing compared to bigger companies? And how can you help support them?

(PS: A quick and shameless plug – if you’re looking for fun, creative holiday gifts and inspiring jewelry ideas, not to mention a way to support a small business’s CSR program, check out my mom’s store!)

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7 comments to Running with the Big Dogs: CSR in Small Business

  • Well said! I enjoyed this article very much.

  • I’ll try my best to keep off my CSR / small biz soapbox, but a great post Ashley!

    What most corporate world people forget is that small businesses are the lifeblood of any economy and the sheer volume of them is staggering. In most developed countries they account for around 99% of all business and 50% of the workforce.

    They all ‘do’ CSR, just in a rainbow of forms, mostly ad hoc, informally or very reactively. Considering the majority make it up as they go along with no guides and very little knowledge some of the delivery is as cutting edge as the big corporates. What they lack in scale the more than make for in passion, creativity, authenticity and impact.

    If we could only raise the bar ever so slightly on the awareness and understanding of CSR as an entrepreneurial opportunity to improve business performance whilst still ‘making a difference’, the resultant overall social and environmental impact would be huge.

    Off to buy some beads now!

  • Ashley

    Hi David, thanks so much for your thoughts – and you’re so right! We all get so caught up in thinking about the big players, but in reality it’s small business that has the chance to really shape the conversation here. The part that was most fascinating to me, as I spoke with my mom about her business, was the idea that there really is no model or guide to follow. My guess is that small business owners follow their hearts and their instincts when deciding how to grow their CSR efforts, and sometimes it works and sometimes things need to be tweaked. But here you’re right again: the impact that these programs, even the smallest ones, can have on the local community and economy is impressive. I know the process of writing this post has opened my eyes to the impact of CSR programs in small/medium businesses and I’ll certainly be on the lookout to highlight more companies going forward.
    Thanks for reading and your comment!
    Ashley

  • Ashley, I went to a CSR conference a couple of years ago. The companies there made a point about knowing where CSR was part of the company’s fiber . . . where did it report? Marketing? — you’re putting on a face.
    Human resources? — you want others to do the work.
    President’s office — you stand a chance of having the CSR values built into the company’s culture.

    A small or mid-sized company has a very flat structure, of course. But when the head of the organization heads up the cause, then that culture tends to succeed. “We will do well by doing good.”

  • Here in Latvia we’re facing the same challenges. CSR is not only seen as something that only the foreign financed big companies can afford (having 250 employees makes you a big company in Latvia), but most businesses just don’t see why they should ‘do CSR’ while they’re struggling for survival. However, if you talk to them without using the term, you see that many of them take good care of their employees, try to find ways to have the least environmental impact etcetera. All because for them it simply makes business sense: better sales position in export markets, cost reductions and so on.
    In other words: they are being sustainable in many fields, because the want to be financially sustainable.
    Good post!

  • Here in Latvia we’re facing the same challenges. CSR is not only seen as something that only the foreign financed big companies can afford (having 250 employees makes you a big company in Latvia), but most businesses just don’t see why they should ‘do CSR’ while they’re struggling for survival. However, if you talk to them without using the term, you see that many of them take good care of their employees, try to find ways to have the least environmental impact etcetera. All because for them it simply makes business sense: better sales position in export markets, cost reductions and so on. In other words: they are being sustainable in many fields, because the want to be financially sustainable. Good post!

  • [...] do exceptional CSR: this one is the easiest to believe. When I see companies like the ones in this post come up with exceptional programs that are not only effective from a social perspective but are [...]

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