Ten thousand consumers in major countries around the globe are demanding a higher level of responsibility from companies dealing with societal issues, according to the 2011 Cone/Echo Global Corporate Responsibility Opportunity Study. Those consumers report they are already using their own spending and loyalty to press these demands.

The 10-country survey, released by Boston-based Cone Communications and Echo Research, found that 81 percent of consumers say companies have a responsibility to address key social and environmental issues beyond their local communities; 93 percent of consumers say companies must go beyond legal compliance to operate responsibly; and 94 percent of consumers say companies must analyze and evolve their business practices to make their impact as positive as possible.

“There were consistently high expectations for responsible business across the countries surveyed,” says Dan Soulas, managing director of Echo. “However, the findings and expert insights also showed important nuances by country. This clearly points to one conclusion: companies should realize their corporate responsibility strategies need to be customized based on geography.

“In practice, this means having a broad vision to guide the core principles of engagement, but adapting them at the market level, which requires an in-depth understanding of what will motivate consumers in that locale.”

Not only do consumers expect businesses to put their resources to work for change, but they want to participate. Ninety-four percent of consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a cause if both brands are similar in price and quality. If given the opportunity 94 percent would buy a product that has an environmental benefit; 76 percent have already purchased an environmental product in the past 12 months. And 93 percent would buy a product associated with a cause; 65 percent have already purchased a cause-related product in the past 12 months.

Consumers may be so apt to engage with corporate responsibility and cause-related efforts because they are seeing the impact. Ninety-three percent believe companies have made at least some positive impact on the world. A quarter say the impact has been significant. Nearly three-in-five consumers (59 percent) credit companies with helping to educate them on important issues, and a similar number (56 percent) say they have been inspired to support a new issue.

Engaged consumers are willing to reward, but just as willing to investigate and punish. More than a third (36 percent) have researched a company’s business practices or support of issues, and 32 percent have given their feedback about a company’s responsibility efforts directly to the company. Most telling is the consumer willingness to boycott. Ninety-three percent would boycott a company for irresponsibility, and more than half say they already have (56 percent).

Consumers believe it is important for companies to address a full range of social and environmental issues, including:
• Economic development – 96 percent
• Environment – 96 percent
• Water – 95 percent
• Human rights – 94 percent
• Education – 90 percent
• Health and disease – 90 percent
• Poverty and hunger – 87 percent

Yet, if they must choose just one, the clear leader is economic development. A third (34 percent) of the consumers surveyed say this is the most important issue for companies to address. Combined with the environment (21 percent), these issues represent the attention of more than half of the 10,000 respondents. Human rights comes in a more distant third (12 percent).

Ninety-three percent of consumers want to know what companies are doing to operate more responsibly or to support social/environmental issues, and they also want to be heard (91 percent) themselves. Consumers want a dialogue, but ultimately they still find convenience in traditional one-way communications.

The product/package (22 percent), media (21 percent) and advertising (16 percent) are the most effective channels to reach them with messages about corporate responsibility. However, online and new media are impactful, too. When websites (11 percent), social media (7 percent) and mobile devices (3 percent) are combined, new media move into the upper echelon. In fact, 89 percent of consumers expect companies to use both traditional and new media channels to reach them. But no matter the medium, consumers simply want the truth. Eighty-eight percent say it’s ok if a company is not perfect, as long as it is honest about its efforts.