Social Responsibility of Small Businesses

As the still goes on over the Gulf oil spill, it got me thinking about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and small businesses. My first thought was if the term can be even applied to small businesses, as, by definition, it was invented for big companies.

But irrespective of the term used, small businesses undeniably have an obligation towards the community they derive their profits from. This may not be a much discussed topic, simply because it’s more glamorous to collar the big boys. But, considering that more than 90% of America’s business is small (and so it is of the world), there’s no letting off small-to-medium businesses, either.

And, I’m not just talking about environmental concerns here, though they are a big part of CSR, but also about the level of participation or interaction in general that the small business has with the community.

For instance, Delaware’s largest shopping center recently announced that from 11 July, it wouldn’t allow teens inside unless accompanied by an adult over 21 years of age. Mall officials said they were doing this because teens just got together there in large groups and, ahem, did hardly any shopping. Of course, Christiana mall is not the only one or the first to do this, but it’s definitely the one to have been struck back the hardest.

The teeming teens got together on Facebook to and they seem to have a growing fan following.

Several thoughts rush up to me:

  1. Can a business remain insulated and hope to thrive? Does it have any duty to get involved with the immediate community it serves?
  2. Is the Christiana mall case a particular instance of a business getting too popular for its own good?
  3. Could the mall have done better by conducting a survey of the percentage of senior shoppers staying away from the mall on weekend nights because they wanted to avoid the teen crowd?

The way I look at this is banning teens was definitely bad PR. Things could have been handled more creatively, and perhaps, more profitably, like organizing rock concerts at weekends, for which they’d have to pay to get in, or create opportunities for impromptu purchases at the entry and exit points. (The rock concert option would not have helped the case for seniors at all though.) After all, today’s noisy teens are tomorrow’s adults with considerable purchasing power. Let’s also not forget that it is much easier for today’s consumer to be vocal and very good at spreading the word – good or bad.

The bigger point is, where do you draw the line between ‘Yes, this is good for my business. I’ll do it,’ and ‘My customers/the community may like this, but it may not necessarily be good for the bottomline. So I’ll pass.’

And, coming back to the environmental responsibility that businesses should have or claim to have, the is a must read. The companies who don’t make tall, green claims seem to be far more honest than the ones who put out half-truths.

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