For most companies, corporate social responsibility and health are two separate beasts entirely. Environmental health and worker safety are sometimes lumped in with CSR initiatives, but other than that, health is the domain of human resources. But as U.S. health care costs rise and consumers demand wellness and prevention initiatives from companies, this is becoming a problem.
Companies are, in other words, expected to work on population health, not just provide health care for their own employees. If a soft drink company is going to peddle unhealthy products, for example, it better have some sort of health-focused initiative as a counterpoint.
In a new report, A New CSR Frontier: Business and Population Health, BSR examines the role of businesses in overall public health, with insight from the organization's network of 250-plus major companies, including Coca-Cola, Walmart, Microsoft, Chevron, and General Mills. "We wanted to test the role of CSR in advancing a broad health agenda through the private sector," explains Mark Little, director of health care advisory services at BSR.
BSR found three major trends. First, society expects companies to play a a bigger in population health, and second, companies are responding to those expectations, but they are focusing primarily on employees and customers. Last, however, a health and wellness focus is still largely the domain of human resources—even though it should be found in other departments, like philanthropy, marketing, and research and development.
Chipotle is a great example of a company that has brought health and wellness to the fore. The burrito chain's focus on fresh, healthy ingredients has undoubtedly helped its bottom line at a time when other food chains are suffering. But it's not just food companies that need to address health concerns. BSR offers up the example of the Disney Channel, for which every series has at least an episode each season with a "positive healthy lifestyle message."
As the BSR report explains, investors are paying attention:
The emergence of B Corporations (businesses that are certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency) has provided indicators by which investors can measure both business and societal impact. Health is integrated into both the operational assessment of the B Corporation and the assessment of the business model’s ability to have an impact on advancing health. While it is legally difficult for many large corporations to change their articles of incorporation to become a B Corporation, the model could significantly influence society and investors’ definition of business success.
"The pullback of government as an influence for population health has created gaps and stakeholders are expecting more from the private sector," says Little. "The overarching single headline is that business now has new responsibilities that are recognized by stakeholders. We do believe there is a new frontier for CSR."