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Corporate social responsibility is not something that happens by accident. Instead, it is something that all of us must work at as we reduce our carbon footprint and give something back to communities across the globe. But how is this done?

There is no one definitive answer. However, we can look to organizations like Nike to provide us with an example. Let’s take a look at six of the key lessons we can learn from Nike’s corporate social responsibility efforts.

Lesson One: Corporate Responsibility Really Does Matter

Back in the 1990s — even as Nike’s shoes adorned the feet of the NBA’s big hitters and its logo was worn proudly on the chests of the world’s soccer stars at World Cup USA ’94 — its reputation was in the dumps. The organization was reeling from boycotts, protests and general public anger after allegations of child labor usage and sweatshops in the supply chain. And, the writing was very much on the wall: this kind of cavalier attitude to ethics will not fly anymore.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and things have changed. Nike is now one of the darlings of the international sportswear scene, flying its corporate responsibility flag high. The brand went from ignoring public disapproval and playing fast and loose with morals to being one of the leaders in terms of corporate responsibility.

And this has been reflected in Nike’s profits. Notwithstanding the tumult of 2020, Nike has experienced an almost unbroken run of increased gross profit every year since 2009.

Lesson Two: A Solid Understanding of Brand Identity Is Crucial

So how exactly has Nike achieved such a turnaround? What lessons can we learn from Nike’s success about how to implement corporate responsibility within our own organizations?

According to Kirk Stewart, who played a major role in Nike’s ascendancy after taking over as head of global corporate communications for the company back in 1997, brand identity is everything. He describes this as the “North Star” of corporate responsibility, informing the choices that each and every company must make as they aim to be better.

This means we need to understand our brand mission and what our companies are all about. We need to put corporate responsibility at the very heart of this, and to strive to bolster our reputation as leaders when it comes to social conscience and environmental best practices.

Lesson Three: Failures Exist and Cannot Be Ignored

And that was that — Nike integrated corporate responsibility into its raison d’etre and never looked back? Well, not exactly. Overhauling the reputation of a company is a bumpy road, and it was inevitable that there would be failures along the way. The key to Nike’s eventual success lies in the way that these failures were dealt with.

Steward describes how, during his tenure at Nike, the company went out of its way to define itself and not be defined by others. This meant owning up to failures as they happened, taking responsibility, and being pragmatic when it came to setting out a positive path for doing things better in the future.

We can certainly apply this within our own efforts as we embrace our failures just as we do our successes, and embark on a long-term plan of improvement and development.

Lesson Four: Corporate Responsibility Drives Do Not Need to Come at the Expense of Profits

We have seen how Nike was able to turn its newfound solid reputation into a driving force for profits. But this was not an endgame that was only achieved after years of difficulty and hardship. Instead, Nike demonstrated that an effective corporate responsibility drive could be executed alongside more traditional profit-making endeavors. In other words, just because we are seeking to develop your corporate responsibility does not mean we need to prepare ourselves for a series of losses.

What is required is a careful and considered approach to transformation. We can still pursue our traditional revenue channels, but we can do so in a way that is more responsible and sustainable than ever before. What’s more, we can promote our corporate responsibility efforts in a tactful and appropriate manner. We can also educate other business owners on how to make the world a better place through corporate activity. This thought-leadership will have the additional effect of driving profits in the short to mid-term, ahead of bolstered revenue in the long term.

Lesson Five: Push Transparency and Accountability to the Fore

None of this is possible without transparency and accountability, as demonstrated by Nike’s example. Sure, owning up to our mistakes is part of being transparent and accountable, but there needs to be a much broader cultural shift.

Nike achieved this by publicizing all of its endeavors in this department and making it easy for the public to discover more about what the company was doing and then hold it accountable for it. For example, Nike went on a low-water consumption drive and released a statement explaining how it was “assessing and understanding [its] overall water footprint, which helps [it] identify opportunities for conservation across [its] value chain.”

This was followed up by a partnership with DyeCoo Textile Systems, removing waste water from the process and making sure that no chemicals were released into the water table. Energy consumption was also reduced by 60%.

This is an example of plans made public, followed by direct action taken to make those plans a reality. The example of “words followed by actions” is a good one for any company to follow as it pursues improved corporate social responsibility.

Lesson Six: Corporate Responsibility Is an Ongoing Journey

Nike’s race is not run. Its battle may be won, but there are still more battles to be fought and won, and more miles to be run. This is because corporate social responsibility is an ongoing journey. There is no “endgame.” Rather, there is a continual process of development.

This is why if we are serious about corporate social responsibility, we need to be committed to making CSR part of our brand identity for the long haul and continually identifying and pursuing ways to be better.

We may not have the resources required to pursue corporate social responsibility on the sort of scale that Nike has done, but each and every organization can still take it upon themselves to work better and more conscientiously. If we all do this, the difference we make to the world will be huge.