Why companies will take the lead on important issues in the Trump era

Business has the opportunity and obligation to advance critical social and environmental issues--and the momentum is undeniable

Why companies will take the lead on important issues in the Trump era

When the votes came in on November 8, many social and environmental advocates feared the worst: a new reality where important issues would sit on the back burner for four or more years as a new administration stripped away regulation and policies.

For many in my industry, the question became, "will companies shirk their bold CSR commitments and goals if the pressure from government isn’t quite as strong?" The answer is crystal clear: not only does purpose transcend politics, but the environment in Washington DC gives companies the chance to lead and craft forward progress on many important global issues.

Business has the opportunity and obligation to advance critical social and environmental issues—and the momentum is undeniable. Regardless of who may be in office, business continues to move the needle on crucial causes. Here’s why:

Consumers are voting for values with their dollar
Our more-than-20-year legacy of research has proven time and time again that consumers will choose a product supporting social and environmental issues over one that does not. In the wake of the election, that inclination for consumers to support companies that align with their values, and punish those that don’t has become amplified. For example, look at Bill Penzey, CEO of Penzeys Spices, and his letter decrying bigotry. Although the company received both threats and statements of support, when the dust settled, it reported a nearly 60% increase in online sales, even after a 3% drop in customer base. Meanwhile, Patagonia’s post-election Black Friday commitment to donate 100% of sales to the environment resulted in a donation five times what the brand anticipated. And digital is making it even easier for consumers to voice their opinions on issues to decision-makers using tactics that range from email chains revealing CEOs’ direct phone lines to social platforms like Change.org.

CEOs have a POV—and that’s good for business and causes
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the emergence of the new corporate "bully pulpit." Polman, Shultz, Swartz, Benioff, and Chouinard – these leaders have paved the way for CEOs to take a stance on hot-button issues where companies have traditionally remained mum and built a blueprint for how business leaders can use their visibility and financial sway for quick and effective change. Although some may say CEOs are using their power to forward their own agendas, a case study scan reveals that corner office activists are taking stances on issues they believe are in the best interest of their businesses and stakeholders. And observers are noticing the benefits of doing so.

The business case is undeniable
For example, companies from varied sectors recognize climate change is real. Just witness the 365 businesses and investors who pledged continued support for the Paris Climate Agreement in the wake of the election, and more recently, the more than 600 that have urged president-elect Trump to fight climate change. They recognize that investments in renewable energies are increasingly becoming the cheapest and most viable option. On a higher level, the case that CSR is just good business continues to grow, supported by studies from Harvard Business School and Project ROI proving companies with strong social and environmental commitments "significantly outperform counterparts" and benefit from "increased revenue and market value." Not to mention the reputational benefits of doing so – just look at market leaders like Unilever and Patagonia.

U.S. business thrives on ‘rugged individualism’
"Rugged individualism" and "self-reliance." These are the words President Herbert Hoover used to describe his belief in the American system and the resourcefulness of its people to find solutions in the absence of government involvement. Business leaders often do not see barriers, but rather opportunities. In fact, it’s this fierce entrepreneurial spirit and the inertia to drive forward that motivates American business culture. And in the coming years, the true ingenuity of American business will shine through and drive progress—not just because it is viewed as the "right" thing to do, but because it’s just what they are wired to do.

As we inaugurate a president today, the future may seem unclear, but there is reason to remain optimistic. The power of business to make change is a strong force—unfettered by the bureaucracy and bolstered by the mandate from consumers, coalitions, community, and so many other important stakeholders. Let’s accept this new challenge and continue to make a lasting and undeniable difference for business, brands, and society.

Bill Fleishman is CEO of Cone Communications.

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