Social Innovation vs. Cause Marketing

Two articles in the New York Times this weekend highlight the idea of Social Innovation: “Hiring the Blind, While Making a Green Statement” and “Rethinking Recycling” (online it is titled: “Companies Pick Up Used Packaging, and Recycling’s Cost”)

SustainU produces clothing for colleges and universities using all-recycled materials. T-shirts and such are produced in a factory that is close to where the fabric is produced in order to cut down on energy costs, and the company’s workforce is made up of blind or visually impaired workers. In sum, the company is environmentally and socially conscious while producing a high quality product.

Alternatively, larger companies are rethinking the way that packaging is recycled. As municipalities are overwhelmed with payrolls they can’t meet and roads they can’t afford to fix, recycling has fallen down the list of priorities. In addition, consumers are demanding responsible recycling from product producers. In response, according to the Times:

A growing number of large food and beverage companies in the United States are assuming the costs of recycling their packaging after consumers are finished with it, a responsibility long imposed on packaged goods companies in Europe and more recently in parts of Asia, Latin America and Canada.

This isn’t just because of a sense of community commitment; it’s because it has become cheaper to produce an aluminum can from recycled materials than it is to do from scratch. The same will also soon be true for plastic bottles–an extremely important issue as they are a petroleum-based product. (Companies have also found a way to recycle yogurt cups and turn them into usable consumer products like toothbrushes.) And, companies may be trying to take their fortunes into their own hands before localities more strictly regulate recycling, as has already been done in states like Maine. Whether for cost savings or otherwise, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is better for profits and the planet.

These ideas are part emblematic of Social innovation, which I define in Compassion, Inc:

Social Innovation represents a philosophical shift in corporate do-gooding. It is an integrated web of corporate responsibility, sustainability, strategic philanthropy, cause marketing and advocacy that is underscored by a holistic approach that embeds “doing good” into a corporation’s DNA.

The fundamental difference between this and Corporate Social Responsibility or cause-related marketing is that Social Innovation is NOT about reporting to the world what you are doing, or about advertising a product and using charity to help sell more of them. Rather, social innovation is about doing good and getting caught at it. (Granted, a major article in the New York Times is hardly getting caught, but the companies mentioned here were doing good work long before the reporters ever showed up.) It is about looking at how you do business and re-configuring processes to be authentic, customizable, transparent and sustainable–both from an environmental standpoint, but also for the long-term growth of the business.

This is the kind of “good works” that companies should be moving toward, not simply slapping a charitable logo on a product.

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