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How the Fortune 500 Says It’s Saving People and the Planet

An increasing number of companies are giving consumers specific details about their efforts to protect the environment and their workers.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

It’s not easy being green, especially if you’re a corporation. Companies have been under increasing pressure from consumers and investors to explain how their operations might affect the environment and the health of their workers. So now, many of them have chosen to publicize their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. But in the era of search-engine optimization, when consumers can access competing companies’ info with a quick click of the mouse, firms must think strategically about the most effective way to frame their good intentions.

So how do the leading companies do it? By stressing their commitment to their communities and the environment, and avoiding ambiguous terms like green and citizenship, according to a new study published in the Business Communication Quarterly. The authors looked at the websites of all the companies in the Fortune 500 in 2011, and calculated which words cropped up most commonly in the companies’ CSR-related headings, which point readers to explanations of the companies’ initiatives.

Certain terms appeared more often than others, the analysis showed. About 83 percent of the companies used community in their headers, with environment coming in a close second, at 80 percent. As the authors point out, these terms address the two fundamental social issues—people and the planet—that have been at the heart of CSR since its emergence in the 1950s. More than half of the company websites also contained the headings health and wellness, sustainability, diversity, and ethics.

Other headings are used far less often. A little more than a third of the websites used the heading corporate responsibility, and about 25 percent of the companies focused on employee compensation. Fewer than 20 percent used terms that the authors consider more ambiguous.

Manufacturing firms used CSR-related headings much more often than retailers or service companies. Given the widespread concerns over the environmental impact of processes like waste disposal, it comes as no surprise that 94 percent of manufacturers stressed environment. But 88 percent of these firms also had a community section, showing they recognized the importance of trying to build relationships with locals.

Retailers, meanwhile, tended to use the ethics and employee compensation tags, reflecting the idea that their reputation with consumers rests on their frontline workers. Service companies were most inclined to use the diversity label, in recognition that outsiders will judge them, in large part, on the inclusiveness and well-being of their employees.

The CSR stakes are high for companies: According to a 2004 study, 84 percent of Americans said they would switch brands if a competitor backed a good cause, and 79 percent said they considered corporate citizenship when deciding whether to make purchases. By understanding how major companies frame their CSR messages, managers at firms of all sizes can get a sense of the most popular terminology. But above all, the authors write, firms should use terms that can be easily grasped by their target audience—and make sure these actually align with the companies’ actions and policies.

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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