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‘Corporate Sustainability’ is About More Than the Environment

As sustainability factors into a growing number of consumer decisions, Mizzou study shows working conditions are a top concern

April 18th, 2017

Story Contact: Liz McCune, 573-882-6212, mccunee@missouri.edu

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Recent surveys show most consumers value corporate sustainability and are willing to pay more for products made by companies committed to making a positive social and environmental impact. Yet little scholarship exists about what consumers think about corporate sustainability in terms of companies’ moral duty. New research from the University of Missouri reveals specific aspects of corporate sustainability consumers believe are companies’ moral responsibility to fulfill —findings that could shape business strategies for companies that want to appeal to these consumers.

Sojin Jung, an assistant professor of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Jung Ha-Brookshire, an associate professor of textile and apparel management and associate dean of research and graduate studies in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences, examined sustainable business activities in a recent survey of U.S. consumers. They found participants identified four key areas of corporate sustainability that consumers believe to be part of companies’ moral responsibility: working conditions, environmental support activities, community development and transparency.

To develop the survey, researchers reviewed corporate sustainability reports from consumer product companies considered to be sustainable. From those reports, they identified 44 unique sustainable business activities reported by companies, which were tested in a national survey for consumers’ perceptions within the corporate moral responsibility spectrum.

“Many companies see touting their corporate responsibility as a marketing tool, but this work shows that if such marketing is going to be effective, companies must be able to deliver in some key areas that consumers believe are fundamental responsibilities for companies to fulfill,” Ha-Brookshire said. “This is the first empirical study of its kind to attempt to understand consumers’ views on different types of corporate sustainability activities within the corporate moral responsibility spectrum.”

Ha-Brookshire said the key expectations build upon one another, with working conditions forming the base. For example, even if a company had an exceptional program supporting the local community, consumers may not consider it sustainable if the company also maintains a factory with poor working conditions, she said. That is because offering proper working conditions is perceived to be a more important duty for companies to fulfill than the other. An even less important perceived moral duty was transparency.

“No matter how much information corporations share about the good deeds they are doing, if the company has terrible working conditions or damages the environment, consumers may not accept or believe the company’s transparency efforts because of the different moral responsibility values they place on these different activities,” Ha-Brookshire said.

Although Ha-Brookshire found agreement across socioeconomic groups on the four areas most valued, differences existed among certain groups. For example, consumers over 45 years of age were more likely to place high moral responsibility value on working conditions compared to younger consumers, and unmarried consumers put a higher level of moral responsibility on companies’ community support compared to married consumers.

“These findings add knowledge to the area of moral responsibility of corporate sustainability, and help companies have a clear understanding of consumers’ expectations,” she said. “Many companies have pledged to become more sustainable, and this gives them a framework from which to work.”

The study, “Perfect or Imperfect Duties? Developing a Moral Responsibility Framework for Corporate Sustainability from the Consumer Perspective,” was published in the journal Corporate, Social Responsibility and Environmental Management.

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