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By Philile Shongwe, MIDP’22

On Wednesday February 23, Sanford hosted its “Stand for Corporate Social Responsibility” virtual event. In a conversation moderated by the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) Director, Eddy Malesky, panelists Victoria Corti MIDP’13 and Gonzalo Pertile MIDP’17 spoke about the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and how businesses are integral to ensuring sustainable economic development.

Woman, smiling
Philile Shongwe, MIDP’22

It was interesting to learn about the different ways each panelist thinks about and champions CSR in their work.

Corti is currently an advisor for the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, working to improve social and urban integration of Barrio 31, one of the city’s most famous slums. She is also the cofounder of Sesenta, a virtual platform that provides executive volunteers with organizations that need support. She was formerly the manager of social impact and innovation for Almado, a consultancy and social enterprise business that helps organizations develop solutions to social challenges that have high social, environmental and economic impact and return on investment.

Pertile is Madewell’s director of corporate social responsibility. He works primarily to ensure the environmental sustainability and social impact of the Madewell brand. Previously, he worked with organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank, United Nations and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He also co-founded Meso Goods, a social enterprise that provides sustainable job opportunities for more than 550 artisans from Guatemala, Honduras and Peru.

Malesky opened the conversation by asking each panelist what CSR means to them. While the term tends to be defined in different ways, the panelists shared the view that CSR should be embedded in business models and operations. They also emphasized the need to develop long-term CSR strategies to inform key metrics to achieve corporations’ desired impact.

For example, Gonzalo talked about how Madewell conducts a life-cycle assessment of its products, looking at each level of the supply chain to understand the environmental and social impacts of their production. They then use this information to develop a data-informed CSR strategy for Madewell.

The panelists also talked about the ways CSR approaches are responding to customers’ growing desire for companies “to share the same beliefs.” This, for me, highlighted that customers have the ability to shape business operations in ways I believe many consumers still take for granted. I think learning about how integral CSR is to business models and long-term strategy should encourage us to reflect on the values we care about -- whether environmental or otherwise -- and to be more intentional about how we relay those values to corporations. In other words, are we as customers taking our responsibility to communicate and advocate for our values through our interactions with companies? 

Corti and Pertile raised another point that resonates with me as someone deeply interested in social innovation and its role in promoting sustainable development. How do small and medium sized enterprises engage in CSR, if at all? Corti talked about the limited data collection capacities of smaller corporations, while Petrile lamented Madewell’s limited ability to work with start-ups who are not ready for large-scale production, despite having potentially impactful innovations.

Certainly, if CSR is truly embedded in business models, there may be scope for smaller organizations to tailor their CSR strategies regardless of their size or measurement capacity. Ultimately it is encouraging that companies are positioning themselves as leaders in promoting sustainable development through CSR, and that customers are an integral part of determining what those strategies are and their eventual impacts on society. My hope is that we as customers take this opportunity seriously to ensure businesses are partners rather than adversaries to achieving our development goals. 

Philile Shongwe is Rotary Peace Fellow in the MIDP program. Prior to Sanford, she spent several years working with NGOs and governments in East and West Africa to generate evidence to improve the social impact of their education, health, and social protection programs. Philile's interests include exploring how social innovation might play a role in breaking intergenerational poverty and conflict in Southern Africa.