Dr. Debra Basil is a co-founder and director of the Institute for Consumer and Social Well-being, a professor of marketing at the University of Lethbridge's Dhillon School of Business and a Board of Governor’s Research Chair.

Debra, whose research expertise includes employee volunteerism, cause-related marketing, charity appeals, corporate social responsibility and social marketing, took some time to chat with us about social responsibility and sustainability in business.  

For those that aren't familiar, could you explain social responsibility and sustainability as it relates to organizations?

Social Responsibility and sustainability are closely intertwined terms. There are many definitions and they are often contested, so I’ll provide my own perspective. Social responsibility, or corporate social responsibility (CSR), is the notion that companies are responsible to a wider group of stakeholders beyond their shareholder group. Companies have a responsibility to all whom they affect, including (but not limited to) their local communities, their employees, their supply chain and their customers. Companies take actions to demonstrate their social responsibility often because they know that their customers want this and will reward them with purchases.

The term sustainability is often used to reflect environmentalism. Companies are increasingly demonstrating their commitment to the environment through how they produce and package their products, as well as through the very nature of the products they produce. These efforts reflect consumer demand for sustainable products. They also reflect an understanding that sustainability can often be more profitable for a company. This is in part because it appeals to consumers and in part because a commitment to sustainability forces a company to carefully examine all processes and increase their production efficiencies.

You are a co-founding member and director of the Institute for Consumer and Social Well-being, could you describe what the institute is and its purpose?

ICSW is aptly named in that it is an organization focused on the well-being of individual consumers as well as society in general. ICSW members are all marketing faculty within the Dhillon School of Business. We have been fortunate over the years that our administrators have understood the competitive niche we have developed and have allowed us to consistently hire individuals who can contribute to our unique market positioning. As a result, the University of Lethbridge is known internationally for our work in the areas of social and individual well-being. More specifically, we address issues of consumer prosocial behaviour, corporate social responsibility, non-profit marketing, charitable donations, environmentalism, social-change marketing, and volunteerism—all the “do-gooder” topics! We do this through our research and by holding small academic conferences and community training workshops, among other things.

What are some of the recent trends you and the institute have found in social responsibility and sustainability both locally and beyond with small businesses and larger organizations?

One trend in social responsibility and sustainability is that it is becoming increasingly important to consumers. CSR no longer sets a company apart from the competition. Instead, NOT doing CSR sets a company apart—in a very negative way. Companies are also starting to take a stand on more controversial issues than they have in the past. The most important factor for a company is to be genuinely committed to whatever cause they champion. Consumers will punish a company for being opportunistic with their CSR.

What measures or indicators are there that can be used to determine an organization’s level of social responsibility and sustainability?

There are a variety of indicators out there today. Companies need to choose the measure that best addresses what they are doing because some focus more in one area and some in another. Then they need to consistently show progress along their chosen metric. It is fine if a company isn’t “perfect”, as long as they demonstrate genuine commitment to their efforts and make continued, incremental progress.

What can we do as individuals to help our organizations improve their social responsibility and sustainability?

Vote with your wallet! Don’t support companies with practices that violate your own morals. For example, if you feel strongly that companies should pay their employees a living wage, don’t support companies that don’t do that.

Bonus question:

How can organizations ensure they are marketing responsibly during the current COVID-19 pandemic?

First, I think empathy is key. Companies need to demonstrate that they are taking care of their employees and that they care about their customers. Companies must not capitalize on the situation, not just because it’s unethical but also because consumers will punish them for it. Second, companies need to be authentic. Don’t use Covid as a smokescreen to cover poor service. Companies need to remain true to their core values even in this challenging environment. If the company used to support a particular cause, is there a way to help that cause through Covid? For smaller businesses, it’s okay for them to let their customers know they are struggling. Customers are often also their friends and will want to help. This seems less genuine with a larger company though, because people generally (and often accurately) assume that larger companies have more of a buffer available to weather this storm.