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CSR for a New Generation

Much has been written on the topic of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), especially over the last two decades, where its practice has become more prominent within corporations and academic research on the topic more extensive. Its evolution to this point has been interesting in comparison to other business practices, mainly due to its seemingly obtuse nature in regards to how it actually benefits business. Typically seen as a response to public outcries in the last century that surfaced over decades of corporate malfeasance, CSR now takes on a much more important role for the long term viability of the corporation in the twenty first century, especially as a new generation takes hold of the workforce.


Millennials have long been seen as the next generation to shift the paradigm of the new economy. Somewhere between 79 M and 90 M strong, depending on how they are defined, Millennials are the largest population group in the work force - overtaking Generation X in the 1st Quarter of 2015. And with the youngest in this generation just now reaching adulthood, Millennials are expected to hold this title for the next quarter century. 

This demographic shift to a younger generation is important, especially in the context of CSR, because Millennials as a group certainly have different values that they espouse when it comes to business and social responsibility. In the 2012 Cone Millennial Cause Study,  researchers found that 68% of Millennials see "a company's social and/or environmental commitment [as] important or extremely important when deciding which products to buy" or which company to work for. Perhaps more importantly, 83% survey said they are more likely to trust that company. 

Environmental Values

It is nothing new that this generation sees the environment differently. What measures as environmental activism to some when considering an issue like recycling, this generation sees as the practical way you dispose of trash. For Millennials the environment issue can be distilled down to an argument of efficiency, where the goal is to better allocate resources to meet society's needs. The issue isn't a measure of activism, its practical policy.

In fact, despite holding the environment as a core generational value, according to a Feb 2014 Pew Research survey, Millennials are the least likely generation to see themselves as environmentalists. This survey, though seemingly contradictory, demonstrates that millennials have a different frame of reference. These values are not learned, but are in fact inherent.

Demands on Business

Given the economic impact Millennials currently have, measured at $200B in direct spending and $500B in indirect spending according to the US Chamber Foundation, and the growing future impact as they grow into their peak spending years, corporations can no longer ignore the demands of this generation. And the demands are specific; business must demonstrate real investment in the environment and make the environment a priority in the company's overall strategy.  Corporate marketing campaigns that "talk" about how "green" they are or "how much they care" about the "green movement" are no longer effective. Altogether, there is an overwhelming agreement that business can do more to address society's challenges. So over the coming decade, corporations who "act" on green initiatives will be the ones who separate themselves from the rest of the pack when it comes to attracting Millennials as both customers and employees.  

Realignment of CSR

So what does this look like for corporations? Certainly, the values and influence of Millennials presents an opportunity for corporations. An opportunity to capture the economic potential of this generation, both as a employee and consumer. The conduit from which this opportunity can be capture is through a realigned CSR strategy. To this point CSR has been a supporting activity, a policy within the corporation that has been disconnected from the core of corporate strategy. The alignment of corporate values with the values of Millennials can serve as the foundation for a more calibrated CSR strategy within the organization and be the catalyst for long term profitability. It is through this lens that investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency can take on greater meaning for the long term viability of the corporation as these demonstrations of a commitment to the environment can attract the consumers and leaders of tomorrow, today.

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