For Gen Z, “Corporate Social Responsibility” Is an Oxymoron: Here’s Why That’s an Opportunity

It’s no great mystery why Gen Z may not trust the system. They haven’t grown up in a world, like their parents, where corporate life provided any sense of security. The stable jobs with benefits, the steady ladder, the idea that hard work always pays off - if you ask a GenZ’er, that’s old-fashioned American mythos. It’s total disillusionment, sure. But understanding its origins also gives us a critical glimpse of the radical -and exciting - change that’s to come.


A shaky foundation

Of course, their first lessons in corporate vocabulary came in 2008 when their parents lost jobs. They signed off on loans they didn’t (and weren’t intended to) understand at 18. Now, the oldest are entering a furlough-plagued workforce unlike any we’ve seen since the Depression.

The corporate coin has another side for Gen Z, though, and that’s where the heart of the matter lies: social injustice. This is where, often, we lose a lot of elder Millennials. Corporate culture was a thriving part of their childhood - is that not proof that it can do good, that it can provide social stability? The short answer, on behalf of Gen Z, is no. The foundation is rotten.  

Herein lies the problem of CSR. There’s no way it can be genuine if the structures that produce corporations are simultaneously the root of all social injustice. In a particularly prescient Stanford Social Innovation Review piece from 2005, NGO expert Deborah Doane explained “CSR as a concept simplifies some rather complex arguments and fails to acknowledge that ultimately, trade-offs must be made between the financial health of the company and ethical outcomes. And when they are made, profit undoubtedly wins over principles.”

In 2020, this contradiction feels more urgent than ever. It’s the act of slapping “Black Lives Matter” on your streets, then tabling legislation to end qualified immunity. Why then, asks an increasingly disillusioned young America, would a system that benefits from oppression ever be able to effectively combat it?


Ask “why?” And then ask“why?” again.

For a start, instead of asking ourselves the question “how can we, as a business, regain consumer trust?” we might take a cue from the critics and start from “Why do we want to regain consumer trust?” If the immediate response is “growth,” then we’ve already cut ourselves off at the knees. In this global moment, the “why,” more than ever, is what determines success.

Take Youtube’s low-effort messaging around BlackLives Matter. “Your hypocrisy knows no bounds,” it seems, is the kind of generous response we can expect when we fail to ask “Why?” to the degree and frequency it actually needs to be asked.

This generation will cut through platitudes and demand reasons - actionable core values - for what we choose to do in our companies. And, as YouTube has recently showcased, it resonates far better with the public when your “why” has always been to create positive social impact, rather than to use sparse, trendy messaging when an issue arises, spending the rest of the time covering your tracks.

Shift the dynamic

But as we already know, strong core values aren’t a silver bullet. Neither, even, is a robust company culture committed to diversity and inclusion.

What this generation expects from business is total paradigm shift: not CSR for the sake of the corporation, but The Corporation, instead, as a tool to be leveraged for social impact. The ends as social change, with a thriving business as the means.

This doesn’t have to be a bitter (nor unrealistic) pill to swallow, though. This dynamic is one that lends itself effortlessly to innovation. When we work for the cause rather than the company, appearing genuine to a discerning public is a non-issue.

Beyond optics, though, it puts all the building blocks in place for a healthy, thriving company: positive, highly motivated company culture, healthy and transparent community relationships, and even healthier employees. One might also argue that cause loyalty runs deeper than company loyalty among employees - a boon for your productivity.


Remember why you’re doing this

When we consider business the tool and social impact the ends, we defy the role of The Corporation as it exists - and as it is duly criticized - in the world. And when we aim to do something that radical and lofty in the world of business, it’s easy to get lost in the rat race.

Our role, then, as change makers, is to return to the“Why?” every single day. To recognize that the future of corporate social responsibility is just social responsibility - with a corporation tailored around it. To leverage our resources in a different way; to be a catalyst, not a company. Opting out of this revolution is no longer an option, and it’s that mounting pressure that creates a tremendous opportunity to lay down a new foundation in the world of business. We’d best get ready; in the crucible of 2020 America, it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.”

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