The Social Justice Guide for Business: Moving Beyond Crisis to Action

The Future of Business Requires a
Social Justice Approach

A New Normal

Countless flashpoints in recent years demonstrate a new normal where companies are expected to moderate, mitigate, and mediate issues historically viewed mostly as tangential to their operations. In just the last four years, we have seen the pendulum swing from a flood of corporate statements and signaling to a trickle. The combination of fear of blowback and retaliation as well as increasing expectations for meaningful action by companies calls for retrospective sensemaking and a new path forward.

What This Guide Provides

This guide provides pathways for companies to pursue more holistic, proactive approaches, rather than reactive ones driven by flashpoints that often leave companies prone to missteps and vulnerabilities. It thoughtfully unpacks implementation strategies to incorporate socially just and equitable outcomes at a societal level. Indeed, there is a long and evolving history of corporate engagement on social issues as well as several existing frameworks that many companies already often use in discrete ways. This material hopes to build on those valuable foundations and offer some sensemaking.

Why This is Important

This is a paradigm shift from business as usual, but one that is both possible and necessary. It requires making decisions that are often not win-win in the near term. This guidance is designed to support business leaders’ ability to make strategic, meaningful, and sustainable decisions regarding their companies’ engagement on social issues in ways that purposefully advance social justice.

Increasing Stakeholder Expectations and Scrutiny

From climate change to geopolitical conflicts and more, there are converging crises that saturate corporate bandwidth today. That said, there is a need to address entrenched inequality and structural deficits on a societal level as part of (not ancillary to) business operations going forward.This point of view is also supported by private sector stakeholders.

Investor Engagement

While a continued surge of environmental and social shareholder proposals in 2023 — some narrower and more prescriptive than in the past — were met with less support compared to 2021-2022, investors made clear their continued conviction that environmental and social factors can materially impact long-term financial value. It would be a mistake to overinterpret the 2023 proxy season as waning investor interest without acknowledging the overarching trends whereby investors seek greater accountability from business on workplace policies and practices alongside climate risk and corporate political responsibility. Nine in 10 investors believe a company has a responsibility to play a role in addressing societal problems that are important to customers, employees, and investors.

Worker Sentiment

More than 8 in 10 employees report being satisfied with their job at companies where their leaders speak up about critical events and issues. By a 4:1 margin, workers want to be a part of a business that promotes social justice internally through workplace policies and practices. By a 5:1 margin, adults say it would make them more likely to want to work for a company that advances social justice through investments, donations, and advocacy. For years now, businesses have responded to the needs of Millennials and Gen Z seeking more than a paycheck but want to feel aligned with “corporate purpose.” A third of Gen Z high school grads are motivated by contributing to social justice. Workforce dynamics suggest this sentiment is deeply ingrained—with Millennial and Gen Z workers willing to call out misalignment between corporate commitments and actions in a way that business may not be prepared to withstand without meaningful internal reform.

Consumer Preferences

More than 7 in 10 consumers today expect companies to take public positions on issues including human rights, climate change, racism, and gun violence. A brand’s commitment to diversity and inclusion can make 42 percent of consumers more likely to buy their product — up 17 percent from 2022 and 49% say brands should do more regarding social advocacy. Consumer expectations are moving rapidly beyond what performative action can deliver—76 percent of consumers believe a company’s leaders should reflect the diversity of the communities where they do business.

Moving Beyond Crisis to Action:
The Social Justice Guide for Business

This foundational resource, made freely available to the private sector and civil society by BSR’s Center for Business & Social Justice (CBSJ), illuminates ways to sustain and raise corporate ambition in meaningful ways.

How to Use This Guide

This guide includes three documents to explain how companies currently engage on social issues, what a corporate social justice approach entails, and what companies can do to advance social justice. For readability, each document is available as a separate download on the respective pages of this website.

Download Full Guide

I. How do companies currently engage on social issues?

  • How are key concepts of social issue engagement defined?
  • What frameworks already exist for corporate social issue engagement?
  • What are common forms of corporate engagement on social issues?
  • How do these frameworks and forms of engagement factor into corporate strategy and shape the landscape for action?
More info

II. What is a corporate social justice approach?

  • How are key concepts of social justice defined?
  • What does it mean to take a social justice approach in a business context?
  • How is this different from business as usual?
  • How can companies apply a social justice approach as part of ongoing strategy development and implementation?
  • Should all companies be taking a social justice approach?
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III. What can companies do to advance social justice?

  • What are common barriers companies face to advancing social justice?
  • What tactics can business leaders use to address challenges?
More info

This guidance does NOT:

Provide an exhaustive or comprehensive social justice primer.

While we have strived to integrate multiple issues, barriers, and histories of communities in the US, we are creating this guidance as a starting point that will be further developed and informed by the Center’s ongoing work with companies and communities on social justice issues. Future editions and additions will be able to build on this foundation with greater specificity and nuance, and incorporate additional topics.

Make the “business case” for social justice.

This guide starts with the premise that companies who wish to engage with such issues already understand the value of social justice to their businesses and to society and the myriad ways in which social justice and long-term value creation are interlinked. Little material in this guide is devoted to nuancing such linkages. Simultaneously, there are organizations and experts that can help companies develop social impact strategies with advantageous business terms.

Serve as a PR crisis response guide.

Rather than provide a roadmap to navigating unexpected flashpoints or scrutiny, this guide is designed to illuminate pathways by which companies could apply a social justice approach in an enduring way. This approach supports companies to build a strong foundation for why and how they engage on social issues, which helps avoid quagmires in responding to new flashpoints as they emerge.

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BSR Disclaimers

The conclusions presented in this document represent BSR’s best professional judgment, based upon the information available and conditions existing as of the date 1/23/24. In performing its assignment, BSR relies upon publicly available information and information provided by third parties. Accordingly, the conclusions in this document are valid only to the extent that the information provided or available to BSR was accurate and complete, and the strength and accuracy of the conclusions may be impacted by facts, data, and context to which BSR was not privy. As such, the facts or conclusions referenced in this document should not be considered an audit, certification, or any form of qualification. This document does not constitute and cannot be relied upon as legal or investment advice of any sort and cannot be considered an exhaustive review of legal, investment, or regulatory compliance. BSR makes no representations or warranties, express or implied, about the business or its operations. BSR maintains a policy of not acting as a representative of its membership, nor does it endorse specific policies or standards. The views expressed in this document do not reflect those of BSR member companies.