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Social responsibility in 2023: Your year to take action

DEI + Culture / 2.1.23 / By Jen Moritz

Here’s a powerful statistic: According to Harvard Business School, in 2021, 77% of consumers were motivated to purchase from companies that are committed to making the world a better place. And even more powerful? A whopping 93% of employees believe their company needs to lead with purpose.

Those are some BIG numbers your brand can’t afford to ignore.

It’s 2023—corporate social responsibility has come a long way in just the past few years, fueled by the pandemic, climate crisis, social unrest and all the other do-right movements that drive many of your customers. And while we’re using the word “corporate” here, don’t let that fool you—consumers expect their nonprofits, small businesses, governments and even school districts to show up, too.

Social responsibility goes far beyond DEI (and in my world, language) initiatives: It’s how a company holds itself accountable not only to itself, but to its customers, employees and shareholders. And let’s be honest, social responsibility is a tall order—a delicate balance between fiscal responsibility, shareholder expectations, and a company’s commitment to ever-changing, ever-growing social, environmental, customer and employee demands.

We’re far past the point of asking ourselves whether it matters to your brand in 2023. The truth is, social responsibility is everything. But looking ahead to this year, I think there’s room for some grace as we navigate the “how” that comes along with that commitment. What’s that going to look like?

The way we hold brands accountable is going to look different. Until recently, things like setting up DEI teams, building social-commitment pages on your website and taking a stand on social media were enough for brands to wade into the conversation. But things are more nuanced now, and I believe that’s going to come with a little compassion for brands that are doing their best while also acknowledging their weaknesses. I use the word “compassion” with a big note of caution, though. Brands are also going to swiftly be held accountable if their efforts aren’t genuine. Remember, social responsibility isn’t a checkbox. It’s an ongoing commitment—one that, if done right, will take your organization years to truly feel grounded in.

But it’s time to do something. We’ve already seen plenty of backlash to things like performative social posts (think black boxes all over your Instagram feed in 2020). Your consumers are ready to see some action. Yes, I know I just said it takes time, but some things can and should be immediate. Can your brand donate a percentage of profits to climate change right now? Can you speak out about issues in your community as they affect your consumers today? Can you educate your employees about social change? Review your partnerships to make sure you’re connecting with people in underserved parts of your community? Invest in green packaging while you’re already reviewing your current practices? It’s time to take a good, hard look at your list of commitments and start doing. Does that mean you’ll check off everything on that list? Almost definitely not. But enough talk—your 2023 customers want to see what you’re really going to do.

Don’t forget your team. They’re in this with you, likely helping you set your priorities. And they’re on the frontlines of watching how you hold true to those commitments, meaning if you fall short, they’re the first to notice. This is the year to make sure they feel engaged, that they understand your commitment hasn’t wavered and that they can see you’re taking steps forward. With employee turnover at an all-time high in 2021 and 2022, it’s likely many of them chose to work with you in part because of the commitments you laid out in the past few years. It’s time to show them you meant it—and make sure they’re still an engaged part of it.

There are plenty of examples of brands doing social responsibility right—that’s the great news. Companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and even Target regularly make headlines for prioritizing corporate social responsibility, including putting their commitment front and center where their customers can find it. Leaving no question about their plans, progress and outcomes. But those brands also have been on this path for years, sometimes decades. They’re early adopters, which makes them a useful resource for your own social responsibility efforts. What are they doing right that could work for you? What missteps can they teach you to avoid?

Your brand might not have the visibility (or the resources or the budget) of those global corporations, but that’s OK. It’s what you do that matters, and the more genuine your commitment to corporate social responsibility is, the more your consumers, employees and partners are going to feel it and trust that your interests are in the right place. Because make no mistake: They’re paying attention.

What’s next? For me, there’s one question as we head into the biggest ad season of the year: Is it socially responsible for a brand to drop $7 million+ on a Super Bowl spot when all eyes are on them to use their voice for good and their profits to make a real difference? I think this year’s ads will answer that question, for better or worse. I’ll be watching and taking notes. See you back here after the game.


Jen Moritz

Jen Moritz is DS+CO’s senior editor with a passion for the right words and thoughtful writing.