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The activist consumer: why social responsibility is now fundamental to business success

Perhaps one of the biggest long-term impacts we are seeing from the Covid-19 pandemic is an increased global awareness of environmental issues. According to research by Deloitte, climate change and protecting the environment was listed as the biggest personal concern among Gen Z adults worldwide, ahead of both unemployment and disease prevention.

Written by Allie Fitzgibbon |

Colleagues working on a corporate social responsibility plan
"We also include Corporate Social Responsibility implicitly in all our modules so that the focus is always on ethics and doing the right thing as a company."

So how should businesses adapt to meet the expectations of an increasingly informed and engaged public? And what skills do managers need to lead the charge? We spoke to Nick Pronger about how these issues are at the heart of the University of London’s MSc Management.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and ethical working practices are becoming increasingly fundamental to business success. Research by Forbes in 2021 found that more than 90 per cent of consumers said they are more likely to trust brands that are environmentally or socially conscious and nearly 90 per cent are more loyal to a company that supports social or environmental issues.

Global corporations such as Apple, Google and Meta have already recognised the significance of these issues and have publicly announced their commitment to carbon neutrality against specific timelines, forcing competitors to match their promises or risk condemnation from their customers.

Nick Pronger, Lecturer in the Department of Management at Birkbeck, University of London is Programme Director for the University of London’s innovative Management MSc. He explained how social media has helped to shine the spotlight on issues that have faced businesses for many decades.

“These have always been important issues – CSR, ethics, corporate governance and how they link to the stakeholders of an organisation,” Nick said. “But they’ve become more explicit and clearer to people in recent years. One of the main reasons for this is social media. Before social media, if there was an issue with an organisation, they were often able to be secretive about it and people would only find out if they really did the research or were members of NGOs like, for example, Greenpeace.

Since the 2000s, the internet and social media has brought about a communication revolution that means information gets into people’s lives much quicker and more easily. Any issue can go viral very quickly and companies need to be on top of that, or before they know it their products or shops are being boycotted.

In the early 2000s Nike faced accusations that it used ‘sweatshop’ factories with terrible working conditions and Nike’s share price fell by 15 per cent. More recently, undercover footage in the UK found that Amazon was destroying as many as 130,000 returned and unsold items per week. Amazon was quick to announce a new programme to allow third-party businesses to sell returned items as ‘used’.

But Nick believes the drive for businesses to be more responsible and ethical goes beyond just public perception.

Companies are more ethically aware. I don’t think anyone goes to work thinking they want to do bad things that day. People want to work for a company they can feel proud of. That’s become more important over the last 20 or 30 years and now it’s actually part of most companies’ DNA.

In fact an employee study by US-based Cone Communications found that 64 per cent of millennials would actually refuse a job offer if they didn’t believe the company had a strong CSR policy. So with high expectations among both consumers and employees, how can managers ensure their company meets them? Being proactive is key, as Nick explained.

“The bar has definitely been raised,” he said. “Managers have to innovate more and be aware of what their competition is doing. But they also have to be adaptive and proactive in changing the way they run their business. That could be through their production processes, so they’re not polluting rivers. It could be through packaging, eliminating their use of plastics. It could be through distribution, making sure their fleets of trucks transporting goods around the world are running on dual fuel, biofuel or they’re using electric vehicles. And of course they have to monitor and manage their supply chains carefully as well, and make sure they’re assessing the practices of whoever they outsource work to.”

Academic leadership for the MSc Management comes from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics, which since 2020 has been a signatory of the UN’s Principals for Responsible Management Education (PRME). Nick explained how Birkbeck’s approach to teaching CSR sets them apart from other business schools.

There are really two ways to incorporate ethics and CSR into the curriculum – either explicitly or implicitly. In our programme we do both. We have an entire module on CSR, which looks at issues like consumerism, sustainability and how that’s dealt with – and this is a core module across all three pathways. But we also include CSR implicitly in all our modules so that the focus is always on ethics and doing the right thing as a company.

“CSR is a particularly strong area for Birkbeck and we have a number of leading academics in the field. To be part of PRME we had to be thoroughly assessed to show how we are incorporating issues such as ethics and sustainability in all areas of our work - teaching, research and public benefit.”

Find out how you can be at the forefront of ethical and responsible business with the University of London’s MSc Management.