Series: The top five trends in corporate responsibility

16 April 2018

by Jonathan Grant and Jacqui Machin in our sustainability team

Last month, our Global Corporate Responsibility Board asked what the most significant trends in corporate responsibility (CR) are today.  We contacted CR and sustainability experts from around the PwC network and beyond to get their views - and five CR trends emerged.  In the lead up to BITC’s Responsible Business week we wanted to share their perspective.  So here’s the first big trend:

 1. There’s increasing social and environmental disruption - and there’s no avoiding it

Dramatic and unexpected changes to the global political, social, economic and environmental landscapes have made it a tough time to be in business.  In the last 12 months, extreme weather events have had a devastating impact on communities with severe floods in Bangladesh, drought, mudslides and wildfires in California, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.  Scientists are now increasingly confident in the links between this extreme weather and climate change. 

Plastics pollution has suddenly hit the headlines, despite making it into our rivers and oceans for decades.  This was prompted partly by China’s decision to ban imports of waste plastic and by a strong media push, including the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 documentary.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that Prime Minister Theresa May’s gift to President Xi Jinping was a box set of the documentary with a personal message from Sir David Attenborough, one of the grandparents of environmentalism.  

Elsewhere, companies are under pressure on issues of social inequality, modern slavery, the gender pay gap, and the treatment of staff, contractors and gig workers.  While these may be global issues, many demand that corporate responses are relevant at the local or community level.

More disruption is inevitable. Dealing with this uncertainty is tricky enough, but companies can no longer sit on the sidelines of these changes. They are expected to speak up and take a stand on issues - even ones unrelated to their business. For most brands, doing nothing is no longer an option.  Acknowledging the dilemmas and tradeoffs is often a starting point.

A quick scan of 2017's social media controversies confirms this assessment, with some ill-judged attempts by companies to support a political issue causing major upset. Equally, not engaging with the issues is seen negatively.   Two thirds of consumers responding to a recent survey said they want brands to take a stance on difficult issues.  And 64% of respondents in the recent Edelman’s Trust barometer said they want CEOs to take a lead on policy change instead of waiting for government.   

The public is not the only stakeholder group we’ve seen pushing hard for further action on social and environmental issues.  Tomorrow we will cover how investors and governments are piling the pressure on companies.