It's a global trend: Consumers want to buy from, employees want to work for, and other businesses want supplies from, socially responsible enterprises.
"Privately held businesses are adopting corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies not just to save the planet but because they are having to in order to survive and prosper," according to the Grant Thornton International Business Report, which is based on a survey of more than 7,400 companies around the world.
The reasons listed for adopting CSR policies? Recruitment and retention of employees, and cost-management concerns. The conclusion: "Controlling costs is not only good for business but also good for business ethics."
Small-business owners can use the CSR trend to improve their own businesses and stand out from competitors by taking the following steps.
1. Partner with a cause
No matter where you're located, your community has a cause: a free clinic, a Little League team, a coat drive for the homeless, a historic-restoration project. Small businesses can contribute to those causes by such things as offering raffle prizes, providing in-kind services at a fund-raiser, or serving as a drop-off point for that coat drive.
The smaller you are, the more important such partnerships can be: You get high visibility; good vibes; and, depending on what you do, new walk-in traffic.
Just do your research first. Make sure the cause is one that matters to your target customers, and inform them about how you are helping. Make sure your partner puts your name in its newsletter and on event programs. Put up posters by your cash register and in your window.
2. Donate to nonprofits
Give part of your profits, whether for one night or on a regular basis, to a nonprofit or a fundraising event, such as Pizza Night for Little League. Chances are, you'll get new customers from among the nonprofit's supporters.
3. Go green
Changing your lightbulbs, cutting down on air-conditioning, and dimming the lights are cost-saving strategies that should be advertised. Consumers like to shop at stores that are socially responsible, environmentally conscious. Let them know you fill the bill.
4. Treat employees well
Fair employment practices are part of social responsibility. Employees who feel valued because they are paid a living wage or treated as an asset in a startup will serve customers better and generate a friendly atmosphere; they feel as if they have a stake in the success of the business. They'll also come up with ideas and build relationships with customers. All of that is to your advantage.
5. Buy from socially responsible suppliers
Businesses—big and small—have begun instituting CSR policies. That means they need to buy from businesses that also have "clean" supply lines. Let that be you. And retail customers—especially Generation Y and women—have indicated a strong preference, to the point of switching, for businesses that are socially responsible. That includes nonsweatshop goods, organic and Fair Trade, and locally grown.
6. Collaborate and communicate
Join business groups for socially responsible businesses in your community or sector. (In New York City, for example, try Sustainable Business Network New York City http://www.sbnyc.org/; members range from contractors to party planners.)
Your fellow business owners can give you ideas for improving your social responsibility, and you may also increase your B2B sales.
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None of those suggestions takes a lot of money. In fact, some will save money or bring in new sales. But all will give you new avenues for marketing yourself—and new ways to reach and retain customers.