As we reflect on last week's Black Friday, one could say that it’s a day dedicated to the opposite of corporate social responsibility (CSR): excessive consumption and unbridled materialism. Yet, there’s a counter-movement to this version of Black Friday.
Nine Black Fridays ago, Patagonia placed a bold New York Times ad. It had a photo of one of its popular fleeces but said, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The brand was asking consumers to consider the environmental in their purchasing decisions. It was borderline blasphemous for a retailer to suggest not buying its product, especially on the biggest shopping day of the year.
In 2015, REI followed Patagonia’s lead with an equally bold move. It closed shop on Black Friday. REI gave employees paid-time off and encouraged them, and any would-be customers, to spend the day enjoying nature. Since then, other brands have joined the #OptOutside Black Friday movement. For example, Trouts Fly Fishing, which has stores in Denver and Frisco, invited employees and customers to spend Black Friday not just outdoors, but caring for the outdoors. The company hosted a river cleanup (socially distanced this year). Colorado State Parks also did its part to encourage outdoor enjoyment instead of material consumption, making admission free at all 42 parks on Black Friday.
So, can Black Friday be socially responsible? Apparently so. More so every year.
Researchers randomly divided 73 older individuals suffering from high blood pressure into two groups. One group was given $120 and instructed to spend $40 on themselves every week for three weeks. Members of the other group were also given $120 but asked to spend $40 on others every week. At the completion of the experiment, the self-oriented spenders had no change in blood pressure. The group that donated their funds to others or societal causes, or the social-purpose spenders, experienced a blood pressure drop as large as medication or exercise would have generated. In another study, researchers randomly divided a group of adolescents into two groups, one volunteered for charitable causes and the other did not. Four months later, those who volunteered had lower cholesterol than those who hadn't. Social purpose appears to improve other aspects of health as well. There are studies linking acts of social purpose to reductions in inflammation, infectious disease and obesity, for example.
In cases when acts of social purpose don’t spare us from physical ailments, they might still reduce the associated pain. Academics have scanned the brains of individuals whose hands received a mild electric shock. Individuals who had just done an act of social purpose showed a lower pain response in the brain than those who hadn’t. In another study, the same researchers asked cancer patients living with chronic pain to cook and clean for either themselves or for others at their treatment center. When they were helping others, their pain levels were lower than when they were helping themselves.
Cardiologist Alan Rozanski from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City summarizes the evidence on charitable acts and health with, “The need for meaning and purpose is…the deepest driver of wellbeing there is.”
It’s expected that involving employees in charitable activities strengthens societal causes. After all, this is why we organize such activities. Many of us might be surprised, however, to learn that employee social-purpose acts also support the health and wellbeing of the involved employees. In other words, employee volunteering and giving is a true win-win.
This post is an excerpt from “Do Good At Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing” (Morgan James Publishing, November 24, 2020) by Bea Boccalandro, contextualized for this venue.
In early 2017, General Mills tried something new to reduce the deep divide in American society that the 2016 election had exposed. The consumer foods brand started Courageous Conversations, a series of events that consist of a presentation by an external speaker and a small group dialogue facilitated by an employee trained to keep interactions constructive. These conversations dive into the sensitive issues that most organizations encourage workers to tiptoe around: Islamophobia, immigration policy, police brutality, Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ movement, for example. How did this brave experiment go?
Five years of Courageous Conversations, held seemingly everywhere from manufacturing plants to online forums, suggests that it is possible to organize civil and productive workplace dialogue around divisive issues. The first Courageous Conversation attracted a few dozen participants. Now they attract hundreds. Employees report increased levels of understanding and empathy for other groups. They also say that the techniques learned through Courageous Conversations have helped them improve relationships outside of work, including with family.
Following are resources for companies looking to facilitate team-member conversations that reduce divisiveness:
In summary, it appears that corporate leaders don’t have to feel helpless around the blue-red conflict that’s tearing apart workplaces and communities. On the contrary, every company can play a role in healing America's painful and dangerous divide.