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Study: Consumers expect CEOs to be held accountable and take action on CSR

November 7, 2011

This article originally appeared on the Forbes.com CSR blog.

American consumers expect companies to do well financially while doing good for society. This is more than just a play on words: it’s a fact. In my company’s latest public opinion survey on sustainability and cause-marketing, 83% of American adults agree that companies should accomplish their business goals while trying to improve society and/or the environment.  This is only down, slightly, from last year’s 88% who agreed with the same statement.

But more than just wanting companies to do well by doing good, consumers look to the Chief Executive Officers to be accountable and take action.

In a new question this year, we asked the public who they believe is the most responsible for a company’s impact on society, the environment, and the larger community.  Slightly over 70% felt that CEOs held a high level of responsibility and 58% felt that other executives had a high level of responsibility. This contrasts starkly from middle management and employees where only 19% of the respondents felt such employees had a high level of responsibility for a company’s impact on society.  This doesn’t mean that middle management gets a free pass. Rather, 55% felt that middle management was viewed as having a “medium-level” of responsibility. And 35% and 36% of the respondents felt that regular employees had a medium or low degree of responsibility, respectively.

Interestingly, we asked the respondents whether three different scenarios would change their purchasing decisions: 65% said they would be likely to switch to a competitor if a company they purchase from harms the environment. Nearly 72% said they would switch if a company was found to use child sweatshop labor and 39% if the company was found to give no or very little money to charity.

So in that context, what would make these consumers consider switching back to that original company? 72% said they would return if the company made a “complete overhaul of its processes.” In addition, 67% said they would switch back if the company made a financial commitment to those most affected. This differs from the 45% who said they would return if the company many only “some changes” to its processes and the 38% who said that a CEO public apology would influence them to switch back.

By in large, companies can no longer be tone deaf to the American support and interest consumers place in the social and environmental impacts of business operations. Sustainability – or corporate social responsibility, corporate responsibility, citizenship, or any of the concept’s many other names – has emerged and is continuing to build momentum as a necessary approach to business.

At the end of the day, businesses exist to make a profit. But it is the manner in which they do so that is becoming increasingly important.

Over the course of this week, we’ll offer “previews” of some of our key findings until the reports on sustainability and cause-marketing are released next week. So, keep checking back on this blog or you can visit our reports landing page.

Here are the details: the survey is of 1,001 individuals with 501 men responding and 500 women between October 28 and November 2, 2011. The survey was completed through an online panel and is estimated to have a margin of error of +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence level.

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