Here Are The Advantages Of Giving Back In Times Of Crisis

Why the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect time for you to boost your brand's approach to corporate social responsibility.
Here Are The Advantages Of Giving Back In Times Of Crisis
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It’s been impossible to ignore the impact cannabis brands have been making during the coronavirus pandemic.

There was the reassuring nod by leaders around the world who affirmed the industry as an essential service, alongside a steady stream of news about marijuana and CBD-based businesses pitching in to help their communities through a tough time. Some started making hand sanitizer, while others looked around their greenhouses for protective gear to deliver to the front-lines.

RELATED: Marijuana Dispensaries Offer Essential Services Across The Country. Here's Why It Matters.

It’s been a great chance for an industry that’s long been under the microscope to showcase its corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies. But what is CSR? It’s the idea that businesses should act responsibly toward customers and employees, conduct ethical operations, and be a positive force in the community.

For the average cannabis entrepreneur, seeing news about donations of tens of thousands of items float by on social media can be daunting. After all, even though many marijuana businesses are seeing unprecedented demand as consumers stock up on products, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the ultimate impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

But you don’t have to be a giant multi-state operator to use shelter-in-place orders and the social-distancing atmosphere as an opportunity to tweak your CSR approach. Experts say it doesn’t have to cost a lot and could actually save you money in the long-run.

The four principles of corporate social responsibility 

CSR may smack of upbeat PowerPoint presentations and corporate motivational music, sure. You’ve most likely come across it in slick ad campaigns from some multinational company that wants to tell you about how they’re saving the rainforest with a new battery design or giving kids in Uganda an education by furnishing them with shoes. But CSR is more than just an add-on program.

RELATED: Cannabis Companies Donate Personal Protection Equipment To Frontline Health Care Workers

Last year, the non-profit group the Global Cannabis Partnership released its CSR framework. Cannabis companies, government agencies, and lawyers from around the world came together to settle on four principles to guide the worldwide industry – responsibility, collaboration, transparency, and continuous improvement. The standards touch on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting responsible product use, and ethical business practices, among other things.

And while CSR covers a lot of different areas, from employee wellness to charity partnerships, coming up with your company’s plan isn’t about trying to pick the right topic out of a hat, according to Lisa Hogan, president, and CEO of the Corporate Social Responsibility Foundation. 

“Implementing corporate social responsibility principles is not a zero-sum concept. Businesses and industries have many facets," says Hogan. "The goal for modern innovative companies is to source leaders and personnel with the skill sets to ensure that the company performs well financially and operates in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.”

CBD entrepreneurs, by the way, are in a prime position to get off on a good CSR footing, Hogan says. “The emerging CBD industry is well-positioned to implement CSR principles in its formative stages and achieve a competitive advantage with consumers and investors for the long-term,” she says. “Research shows that companies that proactively manage their impacts responsibly financially outperform their peers.”

Start small, and increase support

Samantha O'Neil, an Arlington, Virginia-based marketing and CSR expert who has worked with the NFL, NCAA, and La Liga, encourages brands to think local when trying to decide how to assist during the coronavirus pandemic. “Look for ways to help in the communities where your team members live and work, and focus on what you do best,” she says, pointing to distilleries that have begun making hand sanitizing products. “They are thinking local and making a huge impact on their communities by identifying a problem and figuring out how they can help with the resources and talent they already have.”

RELATED: 5 Ways Cannabis Retailers Can Differentiate Themselves

O’Neil says a serious CSR approach will ensure you still have an enthusiastic team in the future. “Ask your employees what is most important to them,” O'Neil says. “You don't have to start with a leap off the deep end. Start small. Measure and evaluate the success and impact of your strategies, and increase support as you go along.”

Ryan Kendall, of CSR consulting firm Savage Venture, says during the pandemic businesses that can give back should. “Perhaps it means rolling out free delivery services while giving hazard pay to those making deliveries and risking contamination,” Kendall says. “The important thing is to be people-centered and mission-focused. Extend your brand to wrap your arms around your community.”

While giant cannabis firms may have the resources to do so at scale, even smaller companies have shown themselves to be adept at implementing CSR principles. Some have focused on switching to sustainable packaging, donating to charities, and giving away free products to veterans and patients. Some provide employment opportunities to homeless people, while others team up with charities such as The Last Prisoner Project, to help counteract the effects of the drug war.

But if you can’t achieve everything you want right away, don’t beat yourself up about it, the Cannabis Certification Council says. “A company shouldn’t feel restricted because they are unable to hit every point of CSR,” a spokesperson said. “It’s better to focus on the areas in which you can provide a positive impact.” And there’s nothing wrong with letting current and future customers know, tactfully, about your CSR strides, according to the council.

RELATED: 5 Ways Cannabis Retailers Can Differentiate Themselves

Hogan, of the CSR foundation, agrees. “I think it is acceptable for companies to reveal and promote their charitable works and responsible environmental, social and governance business practices,” Hogan explains. “Society and consumers want the information reported and are increasingly making choices regarding whom to patronize based on that CSR reputation.”

The key, according to O’Neil, is to explain how what you’re doing connects with your brand’s values. “Companies who market their CSR programs to consumers successfully understand the importance of focusing on impact and results,” O'Neil says. “That’s why it’s important to measure impact and communicate it effectively both internally and externally.”

Emily Clapp is a CSR consultant who has launched multiple cannabis brands. You can find out more about her work.

Drew Penner is an award-winning writer and podcaster who produces the Frequency Horizon electronic music and culture podcast.

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