A Foundational Guide for Business on Social Justice for 2024 and Beyond

Photo by bruev on iStock

March 5, 2024
  • Jen Stark portrait

    Jen Stark

    Co-Director, Center for Business and Social Justice, BSR

  • Jarrid Green portrait

    Jarrid Green

    Co-Director, Center for Business and Social Justice, BSR

  • Ashley Lin portrait

    Ashley Lin

    Manager, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, BSR

Key Points

  • By a 4:1 margin, workers in the U.S. want to be a part of a business that promotes social justice.
  • While some companies may be addressing barriers within their walls, this doesn’t account for the lack of public policy or regulation and the need for systemic solutions that level the playing field across the U.S. for business.
  • The Social Justice Guide is intended to spark conversation and collaboration; and reenergize credible business action that builds trust with key stakeholders, delivers long-term value for the business, and produces meaningful, lasting progress for the communities they serve.

Amid ongoing political polarization and uncertainty in the United States, BSR’s Center for Business & Social Justice offers The Social Justice Guide for Business: Moving Beyond Crisis to Action for meaningful engagement on social justice issues.

In the current landscape, businesses are under increased scrutiny when they engage on social issues. Simultaneously, stakeholders expect business leadership on various social justice issues—this paradigm shift is the new normal. Companies are expected to continue to act on social justice in practice, if not in name, including issues such as climate justice, democracy, economic inclusion, racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ inclusion, caregiving, unionization, and community impact.

Given dynamic expectations from workers, consumers, investors, and communities, coupled with concerns about potential backlash, a social justice lens on business strategy provides a new way forward.

Data from 2023 confirms the direction in which stakeholders are pointing, despite the headwinds:

Workers in the U.S. want their company to take meaningful action. 

  • 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.

Most consumers are already voting with their wallets.

  • 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 percent 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. 

Investors believe environmental and social factors can materially impact long-term financial value.

  • Investors are increasingly seeking greater transparency and accountability from business in their workplace policies and practices, climate risk and impact. 

  • Nine in 10 investors said companies have a responsibility to help address societal problems that are important to customers, employees, and investors. 

Business leaders need to wrestle with how to prioritize positive and equitable social outcomes as a primary strategic objective. Companies will face trade-offs and need to make choices along the way. 

The Guide will help business leaders who, despite having publicly embraced and committed to addressing social injustice over the past four years, are now pumping the breaks in reaction to political blowback. It can help business break out of the cycle of scrambling to respond to flashpoints that often leave companies prone to missteps and vulnerabilities.

While a social justice approach isn’t meant to be easy, it’s also not ‘all or nothing.’ The guide aims to provide consolidated guidance on approaching social justice based on sound business principles, helping companies tackle social justice issues in a methodical and meaningful way, acknowledging the multiple corporate functions this work touches.

To unpack the term social justice and shift from theory to action, the Guide offers strategy and implementation advice in three sections: 

  • How Companies Engage: offers a high-level overview of how companies currently engage on social issues, outlines six forms of corporate social engagement, and includes links to existing tools and resources that are currently leveraged by corporate leaders in their social impact initiatives. 

  • A Social Justice Approach: defines the key terms related to corporate social justice and provides a framework for engagement to help businesses address social justice issues. 

  • Advancing Social Justice: provides high-impact, actionable recommendations for overcoming those barriers and supporting a more equitable society while minimizing risks to business. 

The Guide is designed by and for large companies across industries with complex value-chains, diverse stakeholders and is focused on the U.S. region.

Social justice often isn’t anyone’s job at a company yet implicates many functions and roles including DEI, Sustainability, ESG, Public Affairs, Investor Relations, Stakeholder Engagement and many more. The Guide can be applied by executives empowered to make organizational decisions and is also designed to support practitioners looking for approaches grounded in methodology. 

The interaction between business and social justice is evolving, and this guidance serves as the basis to spark dialogue and collaboration with urgency and purpose. Use of the Guide will generate improvements and interest in future versions that go deep by industry, function and issue area.

The Center for Business & Social Justice welcomes input, ideas, and feedback on the Guide. 

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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