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Why 'Doing No Harm'​ Is Not Enough: The Case for Positive Social Responsibility in Business

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

When it comes to being socially responsible, doing no harm is not enough. By providing leadership in what some are calling positive social responsibility – taking action to add value, as well as reduce harm – businesses can not only show their commitment to building a better world but also drive innovation and prosperity in the process. Here’s how corporations can become agents of positive change and usher in a new era of prosperity for all.

Why positive social responsibility (PSR) will drive global sustainability goals

There is also a growing consensus that we need to move from goals of doing no harm, or net zero initiatives, to those of positive social responsibility (PSR). Doing no harm is focused on stopping current activities with negative environmental impacts. Those are important and necessary steps, but are not sufficient to solve complex issues like climate change because they do not lead directly to solutions. Rather than simply do no harm, or even simply committed to be net zero and internalizing costs (which can actually undermine innovation), companies must embrace PSR that drives innovative solutions and proactive approaches. This can only happen if companies strive to find better ways by collaborating across all of their operations and eco-systems—that is, all their business partners, suppliers and consumers.

In short, many companies have sought to do no harm and become net zero by internalizing costs and becoming more sustainable through their own operations. Some companies have even begun competing to be seen as most responsible—such as Walmart’s recent Sustainability Milestone Award. There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but they are insufficient to meet global sustainability goals.

How do companies implement positive social responsibility?

CSR (corporate social responsibility) and net zero commitments don't mean much if companies don't follow through on them. One of a company's most important goals is to deliver results that meet or exceed expectations. But these measures are not solely connected to profits. There are two key ways that companies can implement positive social responsibility initiatives that generate consumer goodwill, boost employee engagement and make stakeholders more interested in investing. One, they must create and maintain healthy eco-systems where they are seen as industry leaders both inside and outside their organizations. Second, they must embed principles of good corporate citizenship into everything they do.

Leaders and employees, who want to make a difference and feel connected to a higher purpose, are much more likely to stay with companies that take a responsible stance on social issues. The companies that are most successful in implementing positive social responsibility initiatives create cultures where their employees' intrinsic motivations for doing good work outweigh those extrinsic factors, such as compensation or recognition.

What difference will it make?

Even when a net zero approach is not enough to make your business as sustainable as you would like, that doesn’t mean you should stop. Most businesses that aim to do no harm are still far more socially responsible than businesses that don’t care at all about their social impact. We want you to take another step and think bigger than just not doing harm. Your business has an opportunity to make positive social changes by developing a positive vision of what your business can achieve by helping bring about real social change.

There is a lot of work to be done to achieve true social responsibility and many more companies need to join you if we are going to make our world a better place. To inspire others, you must set an example and take a stand. In other words, you’re not just doing it because it makes good business sense but because it is good business sense.

Next steps for how businesses can deliver on positive social responsibility

One way to create a lasting impact on society is to move from net zero initiatives that aim only to mitigate harm, towards positive social responsibility that seeks to bring about meaningful change. A useful starting point is thinking about how companies can deliver social value through each of their core business activities, and at what scale. Companies can then apply different models of return on investment depending on their priority and focus.

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