Social Responsibility as a Startup Launchpad: A Look Into CSR and Entrepreneurship

What images come to mind when you think of Tom's? Perhaps it's an image of the fashionable espadrille, but for me at least, it's an image from one of their marketing campaigns: a group of Tom's employees walking towards the camera in an impoverished community with gifts in hand--the gift of shoes.
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What images come to mind when you think of Tom's? Perhaps it's an image of the fashionable espadrille, but for me at least, it's an image from one of their marketing campaigns: a group of Tom's employees walking towards the camera in an impoverished community with gifts in hand--the gift of shoes.

When Tom's burst into the footwear market in 2006, corporate social responsibility was often a vague term that typically meant donating sums of money to disparate causes and organizations from time to time. However, with the increasing success of companies that actively integrate corporate social responsibility into their culture and operations, new entrepreneurs are seeing the value of CSR in helping shape the world around them.

Even outside of changing the world, corporate social responsibility is increasingly becoming important to consumers as they decide what companies to support through their purchases. According to Oliver Russell, a design and marketing agency focused on "purpose-driven consumers," sixty-five percent of consumers said they felt a responsibility to purchase products that were good for the environment and society. Further, these consumers were often college-educated individuals between the ages of 25 and 32--right at the sweet spot for many companies hoping to generate buzz and increase popularity.

In the remainder of the Tom's commercial, the employees help fit the shoes onto the tiny, slightly dusty feet of the beaming children. They jump up and down with faces positively radiant with joy. Tears of happiness are shed, fist bumps are exchanged, and piles of dirt are kicked with exhilaration. It all culminates in a community soccer game before the commercial fades to black on a clip of a sea of children waving goodbye with their pairs of new Toms. The story pulls at the heartstrings and really impresses the viewer with just how much impact Tom's has through its CSR programming. Clearly, these two concepts--CSR and startups--can coexist peacefully, and in fact often act in a synergistic relationship. But how can budding entrepreneurs incorporate CSR into their ventures, especially if they do not yet have a footprint, connections, or partnerships with humanitarian organizations in areas of need? We provide five options below:

1. Start a buy-one-give one or similar campaign.

Following in the footsteps of Warby Parker and Tom's, donate one of your goods to a relevant organization for every one sold. If you produce consumer goods like clothing or footwear, consider donating one shirt, pant, or pair of shoes through a strategic partnership to a relevant organization, like the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

Alternatively, once your company grows beyond infancy, consider starting a branch of your organization that focuses exclusively on providing resources to underserved populations, as many companies have done by creating charitable foundations. This way, certain employees are able to focus solely on making sure your donations and charitable work have as much impact as possible.

Tom's itself has donated over ten million pairs of shoes, and Warby Parker over
one million pairs of glasses.


2. Source your goods from responsible manufacturers, harvesters, and farmers.

Perhaps best known for this form of corporate social responsibility is Patagonia, which maintains a commitment to source three-quarters of its items from sources it deems "environmentally preferred," which includes recycled and organic materials, among other designations.

Search for companies bearing the USDA's organic certification, or the B Corp certification, which provides a rigorous framework and set of requirements that companies must meet in terms of environmental responsibility, accountability, transparency, and social awareness.

3. Partner with a local organization to host employee civic service days.

Get in contact with a local service organization or group that needs more manpower semi-annually or annually. For example, General Electric has a Global Community Days program where employees donate time to local nonprofit and service organizations around the world. To date, employees participating in the program have cumulatively donated over one million hours of time to service partners.

4. Set up a grant or scholarship program in relevant fields.

Patagonia also donates one percent of its sales to environmentally based organizations, which have totaled over $58 million since the inception of the program. Consider starting small, perhaps with a $1000 scholarship for students intending to study in a field related to your business, such as biomedical engineering or computer science, if your company works with pharmaceuticals or software development, respectively. As your company grows, consider adding additional scholarships, scholarships in larger amounts, or grant programs for students starting initiatives in similar fields.

5. Host student training or professional development days to help local students improve interview skills or resumes.

Develop local students (and potential future employees) by providing workshops or career exploration days that allow them the opportunity to fix up resumes or explore new job fields. Events like these can be a welcome brief respite from the daily academic grind for students as well as a great way for company employees to show off a little bit to bright-eyed, enthusiastic students.

Further, the skills and experiences students take from these events are applicable to many different job fields, so even if a student decides that journalism or marketing or renewable energy is not the job field for him, he is still able to apply skills picked up at a workshop to future job applications or interviews.

To future entrepreneurs, consider integrating corporate social responsibility into your business plan or even developing a CSR branch of your organization. Not only will it provide you a great way to do well by doing good, it could help drive sales and popularity in the way that Tom's, Patagonia, and Warby Parker have enjoyed. In today's world, whether your motivations are in changing the world or in appealing to more consumers, CSR is quickly becoming an aspect of business that companies, new or old, cannot ignore.

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